RIO DE JANEIRO -- The World Cup has a day off today, forcing Americans to contemplate exactly how to kill the gaping hours facing them in the workplace. They should do so by reflecting on the wonder of the United States' magical Great Escape from Group G. Yes, it ended in damp squib style with a heavy-legged loss to a far superior Germany. But if the games were played in reverse -- the Teutonic loss that felt like a win, followed by a tie against Ronaldo's Portugal (which oddly felt like both a win and a loss) and the gutsy Ghanaian glory, the nation would be bursting at the seams with Kyle Beckerman-tinged euphoria.
Make no mistake: To emerge from the mental and physical grind of that gruesome gauntlet is an astonishing achievement for U.S. soccer in general and manager Jurgen Klinsmann in particular. No one believed in this team as it traveled to Brazil, and the German coach could not resist popping a finger in his critics' eye at the final whistle on Thursday, declaring, "Everyone said we had no chance. We took that chance and now we really want to move on."
Everyone except me.
In all seriousness, I think the US will do this. Beat Ghana. tie Portugal, lose or tie to Germany who will have wrapped up the group- roger bennett (@rogbennett) December 6, 2013
On the day of the draw, I wrote how the U.S. would emerge from its group of death, predicting that Jurgen's "ethos with the USMNT has been to instill in his players a belief that they can go toe-to-toe with any team. That belief, and Klinsmann's motivational abilities, will surely be stretched to their limits come June. This will be their goal: Beat Ghana, tie Portugal, lose or tie to Germany, who will have wrapped up the group by then, and pray to the god of goal difference."
I have rarely been the target of more immediate and heated abuse from so many corners. Euro-snobs looked down their nose at my "homerism" and "deluded parochialism." Ghanaians readily scoffed at my ignorance of recent history. And I was even the victim of friendly fire from United States supporters who were either particularly low on confidence or had yet to learn the words to the "I Believe" chant.
The question is, how far can the United States go now? The honest answer: Because the team's play has varied so wildly in each of the first three games, it's almost impossible to tell. Defiant tenacity allowed the U.S. to outpunch Ghana. A flaccid Portugal were confronted with a bold, hard-charging, creative display that ended in a tie, but the U.S. could claim superior style points. And Germany were victorious after overrunning the U.S., who displayed in the final third the confidence of a newborn foal.
Can the U.S. beat the Belgians in the last 16? As one of our listeners has branded this, a battle between the Statue of Liberty and Manneken Pis. I will put my 100 percent record on the line by saying yes they can, but it will be a close-run thing. The U.S. have beaten Belgium before, though the Red Devils obliterated Klinsmann's squad 4-2 in a fast-charging, intricate display in May 2013 in Cleveland. After that game, exhausted U.S. keeper Tim Howard remarked how big the quality gap was between these two sides. I asked him how long that gap would take to close, and he blew out his cheeks and said, "Years."
The good news: That was a very different Belgium. The squad is still a veritable Premier League All-Star roster, yet the form of so many of the individuals -- Christian Benteke (out), the exhausted Romelu Lukaku, Thomas Vermaelen and Kevin Mirallas -- have had mixed seasons.
The United States are now battle-hardened and will have had time to rest after their brutal opening round. This will be a clash between a European star-studded squad yet to find a cohesive rhythm (see the opening-round game against robust Russia, which the Belgians found so hard to break down) and a CONCACAF team that have emphasized collective spirit. If the U.S. can retain their organization and focus, make better decisions moving forward and improve their set-piece execution, they could nick this simply by channeling the same Syrio Forel-esque Game of Thrones spirit: "There is only one god and his name is Group of Death. And there is only one thing we say to Death: Not today."