The United States' high-wire escape from the Group of Death with Thursday's 1-0 loss to Germany left many fans with mixed emotions. The Thomas Muller one-time volley that beat Tim Howard at the far post turned America's newly contagious World Cup mantra to: I believe that we will ... survive?
Mission accomplished — the Americans are through to the Round of 16 where Belgium awaits Tuesday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) — even if team's performance won't set any marks for style points.
Sticking with a familiar plan
Again, the U.S. started the match in a 4-3-2-1 formation — essentially a 4-5-1 — with Omar Gonzalez replacing Geoff Cameron at center back, and Brad Davis taking on the wide role in lieu of Alejandro Bedoya. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played in front of Kyle Beckerman in the center mid roles, with Clint Dempsey starting up top as the lone target.
At the start Davis, Beckerman and Graham Zusi sat in front of the back four and were very hesitant to push forward. Bradley and Jones seemed to alternate who would be sitting deeper next to Beckerman defensively, with the other stepping up to provide light pressure on the German midfield. This allowed Germany outside backs Jerome Boateng and Benedikt Howedes to get push down the flank to get involved offensively. The pairing of Davis and DaMarcus Beasley on the right side struggled early in the game and eventually triggered Klinsman to switch Zusi to the left side, which slowed down the attack.
The tactics were geared toward the result
The plan was clear: Defend first, keep numbers behind the ball and do not overextend the midfield at the risk of giving up ripe counterattacking opportunities to the best counterattacking team in the world. I am sure that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann played the tape of the Portugal goal in injury time repeatedly to illustrate the dangers lurking against Germany. It worked. While giving up 65% of the possession and a number of services into the box, the Americans were able to limit the Germans to a few clear scoring opportunities during the first half.
Adroit substitutions helped both sides
After intermission it was more of the same. A fatigued U.S. team was content with defending for long stretches, only breaking the German pressure when Jones was able to get the ball and push forward through the midfield. Germany coach Joachim Low brought Miroslav Klose off the bench at the half and, with the substitution, they came out more aggressive, serving early balls into the box and committing more numbers into the attack. The bend-but-don't-break defense that served the Americans so well during the first half let them down in the 55th minute, when Howard made a good save on a header from Per Mertesacker, giving up a long rebound that dropped to Muller — whose thunderous volley curled in at the far post to give the Germans the 1-0 lead.
Bedoya was brought on at 65 minutes, a change that was overdue. There were several players that could have come off at that point and an early change at halftime may have prevented the slow start. Between the 65th and 80th minutes, the pace slowed dramatically, both teams comfortable with possession and content playing negative passes. The insertion of Mario Gotze for the Germans in the 76th — and Yedlin for the U.S. in the 84th — sparked life into both teams.
Gotze created two opportunities getting into the box, combining once with Klose and creating his own shot on another. Yedlin powered down the right flank off a counterattack and started the combination that lead to the Bedoya effort, that was bravely blocked by Phillip Lahm.
More questions than answers
The Americans' best opportunity of the game, which came with only a few minutes remaining, left fans with several key questions about the tactics offensively and the lineup for the Belgium game.
Did the U.S. set out to win the game? Why Brad Davis? Will Jozy Altidore — the first-choice striker who left injured early in the Ghana game — play in the Belgium game? Will the struggling Bradley stay in the starting lineup?
With Bedoya playing so well in the first two games — and Yedlin having the pace needed to break the German pressure and create off of the counterattack — what was gained by starting Davis?
As the U.S. enters the business end of the tournament — a single-elimination format where margin for error is razor-thin — the shortage of answers is alarming.
What could be different against Belgium
Altidore, if fit, could be the difference-maker. By winning the first game and having Portugal lose 4-0, Klinsmann was able to rest the team's lone natural goal-scoring target and fight through knowing that a draw or win in the next two games could see them through. The knockout stage should see a different U.S. team take the field tactically — and hopefully the 24-year-old will be the poacher up top.
Assuming Altidore is fit enough to start, the U.S. will come out in a 4-1-3-1-1, with Gonzalez getting the start with Matt Besler at center back, Beasley and Fabian Johnson at outside back. Beckerman will play the holding midfield role with Bradley, Jones and Bedoya playing in the midfield. Dempsey will play a withdrawn forward role and sit underneath Altidore. The U.S. should be able to hold the ball more effectively with Altidore keeping the back four at bay and Dempsey being free to make more runs off of Altidore and get the ball facing the goal. Jones and Bedoya should give enough pace out wide that the U.S. should have an advantage on the flanks attacking the Belgium outside backs.
I would love to see Zusi get the start over Bradley, but Klinsmann will most likely default to his Ghana lineup in the midfield, believing that Bradley will be more comfortable playing deeper in the midfield.
This is a situation many UEFA Champions League fans are familiar with when playing a home-and-home series or in bracket play where two teams advance: It often comes down to survival. For roughly 20 minutes during the simultaneous playing of both matches, things were very tight with Ghana and Portugal deadlocked at 1-1 and the U.S. down a goal to Germany. It began to feel the U.S. would run out of both steam and luck. But the very man that put the American's in this predicament — Cristiano Ronaldo — would be the Americans' savior by ending Ghana's World Cup, allowing every American fan around the world to breathe a sigh of relief.