SAO PAULO — The U.S. men’s soccer team completed the group stage of the World Cup with one victory, one defeat, one draw , one late winning goal, one late conceded goal, two broken noses, an ailing striker and, most importantly, a charter reservation to Salvador for the round of 16.
Spain, Italy, Portugal and England have gone home. Jurgen Klinsmann’s gang is sticking around.
Klinsmann has always exuded confidence, but after his squad navigated a rigorous first-round schedule, he spoke with greater forcefulness and determination during his media briefing Friday at Sao Paulo FC’s training grounds.
“We have absolutely no fear at all,” Klinsmann said. “We feel like we are in a position now to challenge it. We believe we have built a foundation in our team that we are able to beat them.”
He said he told his players to take pride in their achievement — they beat out Portugal and Ghana for the second slot behind Germany — but put it behind them quickly.
“Don’t be content,” he said of the message. “This is what you work so long and so hard for. Make it happen. Is it doable? Absolutely. We got out of this group. Now anything is doable.”
Help might be on the way. While the regulars spent Friday recuperating from the 1-0 loss to Germany, a result that threatened but did not derail the squad’s ambitions, striker Jozy Altidore continued his recovery from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him since the first half of the opener against Ghana.
Altidore has been jogging and running for three days and might be available against Belgium.
“We are very optimistic,” Klinsmann said. “Every day is a big step forward. It’s 11 days now, and it’s looking better every day.”
In Altidore’s absence, Clint Dempsey served as the lone forward in the starting lineup in the past two matches. Aron Johannsson replaced Altidore when the veteran forward left the Ghana game in the first half, but Johannsson has not played since.
Realistically, after missing the games and not training at full power for an extended period, Altidore is not a candidate to start against Belgium. However, if he continues making strides, he would likely be in uniform and become an option late in the game.
Altidore is the squad’s only pure striker, and without his rugged presence to challenge and occupy central defenders, the Americans have had to become more reliant on the midfield.
Meanwhile, midfielder Jermaine Jones fractured his nose in a second-half collision with teammate Alejandro Bedoya during the Germany game, U.S. Soccer Federation spokesman Michael Kammarman said.
Jones is the second player to suffer such an injury; Dempsey’s nose was broken by a high-kicking Ghanaian on June 16. Jones’s injury is a minor fracture, Kammarman said, and like Dempsey, Jones does not plan to wear a protective mask.
Both Jones and Bedoya were evaluated for a concussion at the time of the incident and three times since the match ended. All tests were negative, Kammarman said.
While Altidore continued his recovery, the coaching staff turned its attention to the Belgians, who entered the tournament as a darling pick to reach the semifinals. Belgium also won its three group matches — although not decisively. The teams were scheduled to meet in a closed-door scrimmage on the same day the World Cup began, but traffic concerns in Sao Paulo prompted Belgium Coach Marc Wilmots to request a cancellation. Klinsmann obliged. (Belgium is based about 40 miles away.)
In retrospect, Klinsmann said the decision did not matter one way or the other. “We have everything laid out in detail about every Belgium player,” he said.
As for his own team, “the key going into the knockout stage is about understanding the dynamics of knockout games. That means do or die. Our job from a coaching perspective is to prepare the team so that they understand the dimension. It’s just a completely different topic than preparing for the group stage, where you always count the points and watch the other teams and adjust to it.”
Unlike the group stage, 30 minutes of extra time and penalty kicks might be necessary. Four years ago in the round of 16, the Americans lost in extra time to Ghana, 2-1.
Klinsmann said the team has been practicing penalty kicks since opening training camp at Stanford in mid-May.
“It’s a mental moment,” he said. “If you are not prepared for that mental moment to walk from the halfway line in front of 60,000 to the penalty spot and get the job done, then it’s wrong. We coaches have to walk them through that process, and hopefully they are prepared to put it in their favorite corner or wherever that is.”