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Maradona's 'moral' Hand of God

ESPN FC & Howler

Klinsmann the gambler ups the ante

FORTALEZA, Brazil -- It wasn't long after December's World Cup draw that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann channeled his inner Phil Hellmuth.

With Ghana slated to be the first of the American side's three group stage opponents, Klinsmann didn't hesitate to shove every last poker chip into the pot. Over the next six months, he called the match a "six-pointer" and a "must-win," reminding his side often of what was at stake.

"We basically start with a World Cup final against Ghana," he said in an online chat with fans in February. "We need badly these three points. If we get three points against Ghana, I think then that the confidence will rise, the guys will be pumped up, and they will be ready for Portugal and give them a real fight."

On the surface, it seemed like an impractical, almost reckless approach. How would Klinsmann and the senior players rally the team if the U.S. tied the match or even lost? Granted, the odds facing first-game losers at the World Cup are long indeed. Since 1998, just four of 46 teams that lost their first game have reached the second round, but there would still be 180 minutes of soccer left to play. Even a draw, while no doubt complicating matters, wouldn't have been fatal, especially in light of Portugal's 4-0 implosion against Germany.

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Certainly after 82 minutes of Monday's match, once Ghanaian midfielder Andre Ayew slotted home the Black Stars' equalizer, that's where it looked like the U.S. was headed. But the Americans' never-say-die attitude, a trait that predates Klinsmann's arrival in 2011, revealed itself once again.

Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to hang the entire World Cup on beating Ghana paid off. Now the real work begins.
Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to hang the entire World Cup on beating Ghana paid off. Now the real work begins.

"At 1-1, they had the momentum, so you're just trying to make sure they don't nick a second one," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard in the postmatch mixed zone. "I thought we composed ourselves well, and then we got at them and attacked them because they were flying forward."

The rest has already become legend: Graham Zusi's inviting delivery from a corner kick and John Brooks' perfectly timed run and authoritative finish. As the U.S. celebrated just its eighth win ever at a World Cup, Klinsmann -- and by extension, the U.S. team -- had doubled his money. No rallying of the players would be necessary.

Klinsmann has always had the aura of a gambler about him, even dating back to his first managerial job as Germany's national team coach from 2004 to 2006. Back then, he took risks and confounded observers at times with personnel and tactical decisions. He has done the same at the helm of the U.S,, with Landon Donovan's omission from the World Cup roster the most noteworthy. So far, his choices have paid off, revealing a more deliberative calculus in terms of how he arrives at his decisions.

The question now is how he approaches Sunday's match against Portugal. Ghana and Germany will square off the day before that crucial game, so the Americans will have a clear idea of what's needed. Given that the U.S. carries a five-goal edge over the Portuguese in terms of goal difference, a tie would likely be sufficient to all but eliminate Portugal. If Germany beats Ghana as expected, then the Americans' place in the second round would be all but assured.

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That said, the U.S. historically performs best when its back is against the wall; prosperity is something the Americans haven't always handled well. In 2002, the U.S. entered its final group stage match against Poland with its fate in its own hands. Instead of seizing the moment, the Americans lost 3-1. The U.S. side's progression to the knockout rounds occurred thanks to a South Korean gift, as the host nation beat Portugal when a tie would have been sufficient to reach the second round.

For that reason, it seems unlikely Klinsmann will put all his chips in once again, but he will no doubt add a considerable amount to prevent any complacency from creeping into his side. His postmatch news conference seemed to be just the beginning.

"For us it's a great but difficult start," he said about Monday's victory. "Now we have to work even harder to show Portugal how good we are. This is an even more dangerous team than before. They're going to come to Manaus even angrier. We are looking forward to it. We have a lot of energy to give Portugal and Germany, real games. From now on, it's a grind from one game to another."

And there remain plenty of chips at stake.