RECIFE, Brazil -- It took just six days for expectations of the United States men's national team to change. With that shift, the perception of what constitutes success at this World Cup was altered as well.
Placed in what looked to be a monstrously difficult group alongside Ghana, Portugal, and Germany, simply acquitting themselves well would have been deemed a decent showing for the Americans prior to the tournament. But that was before the World Cup-opening victory over the Black Stars, and the subsequent draw with Portugal, a match that the Americans dominated for long stretches. The U.S. showed it belonged and could go up against some of the world's heavyweights on the brightest stage of all. Now hopes have been raised in terms of the possibilities surrounding this U.S. team.
This shift in perception is accompanied by a change in the kind of pressure the U.S. team faces heading into the Germany match. The U.S. had one foot in the knockout-stage door, leading Portugal 2-1 late on, only to have victory -- and progress to the round of 16 -- snatched away from it by Silvestre Varela's stoppage-time equalizer. No longer can the U.S. adopt the role of plucky underdog, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, a point made by manager Jurgen Klinsmann at Wednesday's news conference. He cited the U.S. performance level as the reason, but the change goes deeper. Klinsmann can rightly point to the progress the team has made under this direction, but there's a nagging feeling that a spot in the second round should already be in the Americans' back pocket. Coming so close and missing out will now leave the bitterest of tastes.
So now, the ultimate judgment for this U.S. side beckons. Achieve the desired result on Thursday against Germany, and a World Cup filled with so many euphoric moments will go down as a massive success, with the possibility of even more to come. Should the U.S. lose and see Ghana or Portugal zip past it on goal difference, the Americans' trip to Brazil will go down as a massive missed opportunity, one that could have seen the U.S. team make a real statement as to its progress.
Attaining the desired scenario -- and avoiding some intense scoreboard watching -- will require the U.S. to play its best match against Germany. The Americans have used their legs, hearts and minds to get to where they've gotten. Now, they'll need to do so again, with the mental aspect the most important of all. Concentration will have to be at its maximum against a German side for which the goals have flowed this tournament. And it will require managing the nerves that will inevitably accompany such a massive game.
Will the U.S. prevail? The ups and downs the Americans have encountered in this tournament, not to mention the difficulty of Thursday's opponent, make it difficult to predict. The Americans have looked devastating at times, like against Portugal. This is counterbalanced by the Ghana match, in which the U.S. struggled to keep the ball.
Yet Klinsmann remains a critical asset at this juncture. Granted, he will not kick a ball on Thursday, but his skills as a motivator, one able to convince his charges that anything is possible, are renowned. On Thursday, as he squares off against the country of his birth, he will need to be at his most inspirational.
The U.S. has found itself in this spot before. In 2002, it squandered the chance in the group stage finale against Poland, only to be bailed out by South Korea. In 2006, it crumbled against the Ghanaians. Four years ago, it seized its chance, albeit at the death thanks to Landon Donovan's now-iconic goal versus Algeria. If the U.S. can survive on Thursday, it will mark a significant step forward for this budding soccer nation. At which point the expectations will change once again, and for all the right reasons.