Can two defensively suspect teams settle on a needed draw? If Team USA and Germany simply equal each other’s goal tallies, both sides will go through to the knockout rounds. In most cases, it would be expected that the two sides should line up in highly defensive formations and show little adventure, committing only the minimum number of men to any attack. If both sides play defensively, the draw will come regardless of any conspiracy.
The problem is, neither side is built to play the sort of boring, unadventurous soccer such a fixture requires. American fans are well aware of the struggles of Team USA to secure a back line, and Jurgen Klinsmann has settled on a system which uses two deep-lying and mostly defensive midfielders in Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman to protect that back four.
Similarly, Germany is not the Germany of soccer legend, solid and hard-working and just good enough on set pieces to score one more goal than its opponent. Instead, under Jogi Loew Germany has been transformed into one of the most innovative and exciting attacking teams in the world. Playing a 4-3-3 without any true forward, the German system arguably includes either two or three false nines. As Mario Götze, Mesut Özil or Thomas Mueller drops out of the forward position and drags a defender out of position with him, one of the others or a midfielder like Sami Khedira will see the space that opens up and make a run toward the danger zone. These runs have produced many big chances already in the tournament, and the Germans have averaged three goals per match. They also averaged the same total in the much lower-scoring context of European qualifying. As currently set up, Germany could easily stumble into a goal or two running a conservative version of their current system.
At the same time, Germany’s 2-2 draw with Ghana exposed major defensive frailties. My statistics rate Germany as the best attacking side in the World Cup but only the twelfth or so best defensive team. In particular, injuries have forced Loew to play center back Benedikt Hoewedes out of position at left back, and he was badly exposed by Ghana’s dangerous wing players. Fabian Johnson, Team USA’s best attacking threat against Portugal, will likely again have opportunities to impact the game with his runs out of defense.
Ghana’s two goals against Germany were well-deserved, as they consistently produced danger zone chances. Both Germany and Team USA would be perfectly happy with a draw, but neither side is well set up to play 90 minutes of purely defensive soccer.
This situation raises the question of tie-breaker scenarios. If Team USA and Germany cannot settle into a stultifying draw, then the outcome of the other match between Ghana and Portugal becomes highly important.
Using the outcomes chart created by Asa Hopkins and my game simulation engine, I have created a chart that maps the likelihood of different scenarios as a kind of heat map. The odds of a certain scenario are color-coded, and the first- and second-place teams in the group under that scenario are written in the box. The black line draws a box around all the scenarios in which Team USA is guaranteed qualification to the knockout rounds.
There are seven scenarios that occurred with a frequency more than 4 percent. Six of those scenarios send the Americans through to the round of 16. The other one, in which Germany and Ghana both win by one goal, would not necessarily eliminate the United States. Instead, it would go to the next tie-breaker, goals scored. If the USA and Ghana have equal goals scored, the following tie-breaker is head-to-head record, in which the US has the advantage. So even the seventh scenario is reasonably good for Team USA.
The most likely bad scenario is then a two-goal win by Germany and a one-goal victory for Ghana. Projected at more than 3 percent likelihood, this is the only one of the eleven most likely scenarios in which the USA is directly eliminated.
Of course, having the advantage is no guarantee of winning. Ivory Coast had a projection chance of qualifying roughly equal to the United States going into yesterday’s match against Greece, and those chances probably in the range of 99 percent to qualify as they hung on to a draw in extra time. But a deflection and a bad tackle led to a penalty, and instead Greece will be playing in the knockout rounds. There are no sure things in soccer. But given the choice, I would much rather see “hot” colors clustered around the Team USA qualification scenarios than not.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
More from the World Cup: