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Jun 27, 2014

Defense, Tim Howard carrying U.S.

FORTALEZA, Brazil -- With the group stage now complete, some of the statistics relating to the performance of the U.S. men's national team make for interesting reading.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the U.S. has allowed more shots than any other team in the World Cup, with 44. In terms of shots on goal, the U.S. has allowed 16, which is the seventh most in the tournament. Tim Howard's 12 saves in three games rank fifth overall. In terms of the defensive numbers, the U.S. ranks sixth in clearances with 100, ninth in interceptions with 45, and fourth in blocked shots with 12.

In terms of the attack, the U.S. ranks 31st in chances created, with just 19. And while its pass completion percentage is 15th out of the 32 teams, the Americans are firmly in the bottom half in terms of passes completed and passes attempted, ranking 21st and 22nd, respectively. In terms of striking at goal, the U.S. ranks 28th in both shots and shot on goal.

Granted, there is a huge caveat to all this. Three games is a very small sample size, and the difficulty of the Americans' group stage opponents can certainly skews the numbers. Had the U.S. replaced Honduras in Group E and gone up against the likes of Switzerland, Ecuador and France, the figures would no doubt look different.

Tim Howard has been the United States' best player at the World Cup.

But they do reinforce a few observations, namely that Howard has been outstanding, and the back line has held up well despite being under considerable pressure.

That Howard has come through isn't a surprise. His performances entering the tournament for both Everton and the U.S. were excellent. About the only mistake he has made since arriving in Brazil was when he fanned on a dipping effort from the foot of Portuguese winger Nani, although he followed that up with a brilliant deflection of Eder's rebound attempt. Against Germany, his handling in monsoon-like conditions was impressive, as were his saves from Per Mertesacker and Thomas Muller.

That the back line has impressed might seem counterintuitive given Howard's heroics. But put in the context of how much the U.S. has had to defend due to the team's struggles in possession, the back four has held up rather well. The Yanks lost the possession battle in each of their three games, and while opinions vary as to how much that really matters, the fact remains that the significant possession edge enjoyed by both Ghana and Germany meant that defensively the U.S. was pushed to its limits.

In the process, the defense has put to rest the concerns that it wouldn't be up to the challenge at this World Cup, especially given the group's lack of collective experience. Without question, the play of Kyle Beckerman in a holding midfield role, along with the defensive work of fellow midfielders Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, has provided an important outer shield. Howard's experience in organizing the defense has also been critical.

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Yet the back four have also stood tall. Matt Besler has been solid in almost every respect, while outside backs DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson have excelled in keeping the opposition in front of them and prevented the opposition from getting in behind the defense. Geoff Cameron's performances have been uneven -- brilliant against Ghana, shaky against Portugal -- but Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks have both had an immensely positive impact when called upon. Brooks' late winner against Ghana is arguably the most pivotal moment of the group stage for the Americans.

Whether the U.S. can continue with the stellar defensive effort in the round of 16 match against Belgium is an open question. Despite winning Group H, the Red Devils looked like they never got into top gear. This is either comforting in that the team hasn't looked cohesive, or scary in that it is clearly capable of more.

No doubt the team is immensely talented, and that it managed to win its three group-stage games while not playing particularly well can be viewed as a plus for manager Marc Wilmots. Belgium only conceded one goal in its three matches -- a penalty against Algeria -- and managed to dispatch South Korea despite playing half the match with 10 men.

Yet defensively the U.S. figures to be tested by the likes of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku and Kevin De Bruyne. And with the U.S. attack struggling to create chances, the Americans may have to record one number that has so far eluded them at this World Cup, that being a zero on the scoreboard for their opponents.