RECIFE, Brazil — On its own, the U.S. national soccer team’s World Cup match against Germany on Thursday does not require any additional narratives. This will, after all, determine the Group G champion and probably decide whether the Americans proceed to the round of 16.
As U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said on the eve of the encounter, “It’s massive.”
But it’s also impossible to ignore the rich subplots that will play out over 90 minutes at Arena Pernambuco:
● Klinsmann facing his homeland — a country for which he won a World Cup title as a player and coached to the semifinals — and matching wits with his former assistant and longtime buddy, Joachim Loew.
● Four German-born — and one German-raised — U.S. players confronting a team they followed since childhood.
● The scenario that, if they’re losing, the Americans’ fortunes will hang on the results of a match played simultaneously 850 miles away.
● Baseless suspicions that the well-acquainted coaches will enter into a secret agreement because a tie would send both teams to the knockout stage.
● And the impact continued U.S. success would have at home, where the team’s matches have drawn large TV audiences and boosted soccer’s profile.
To the U.S. players, the side issues are extraneous. The midday match on Brazil’s northeast coast is, midfielder Kyle Beckerman said, “the biggest game of a lot of our lives.”
With a victory, the Americans (four points) would top the so-called Group of Death and play the Group H runner-up, probably Russia or Algeria, on Tuesday in Porto Alegre. With a draw, they would finish second to Germany (also four points but superior goal differential) and travel to Salvador likely to play Belgium.
A loss would complicate matters. If Ghana and Portugal (one point apiece) settle for a tie, the Americans advance. If there is a winner in that match, the United States hopes it’s Portugal, which would have to overcome a large deficit in the first tiebreaker: goal differential. The United States enters the final match day with a plus-one difference, while Ghana is minus-one and Portugal is minus-four.
If teams are even on points and goal differential, the next tiebreakers are goals scored and head to head. Entering Thursday, the United States has recorded four goals, Ghana three and Portugal two. In their earlier matches, the Americans defeated Ghana and tied Portugal.
Klinsmann and the players would prefer to avoid high drama — and mathematics — by getting the job done themselves.
“We are very capable of beating Germany, and we know that,” he said. “Without being too overconfident, without being too positive, it’s possible. It’s doable. As you’ve seen, this World Cup is full of surprises. We want to be one of those surprises.”
The U.S. squad was not widely expected to survive the group stage, but the 2-1 victory over Ghana in the opener and a 2-2 draw with Cristano Ronaldo and Portugal have left it in prime position to reach the round of 16 for the second consecutive time and fourth occasion since 1994.
An imposing obstacle awaits, though. Before the tournament began, Germany joined Brazil, Argentina and Spain as favorites. Spain is done, but Argentina and Brazil have advanced without a defeat, and the unbeaten Germans, with their lofty goal differential, are almost assured of moving on, even if they were to lose Thursday.
They have not been perfect, settling for a 2-2 draw with rejuvenated Ghana, but remain the group’s elite side. Six starters are from Bayern Munich, a Bundesliga and Champions League titan.
“We cannot underestimate the United States,” said midfielder Mesut Özil, who is employed by Arsenal in the English Premier League. “But if we take advantage of all of our talents, it will be very difficult to beat us.”
In the days leading to the game, Klinsmann and his five players with dual nationality have played down the emotional aspect of facing Germany, aside from saying it’s a special occasion. Their familiarity and observations of Germany’s previous game could embolden them.
“Ghana gave us a great example: They were not intimidated,” said right back Fabian Johnson, who was born in Munich to an American serviceman and German mother. “There is no reason for us to hide.”
There is reason to celebrate a tie, although both sides scoffed at suggestions of collusion.
“This isn’t a topic for Jurgen Klinsmann or myself,” Loew said. “When we want a draw, it never works. It’s almost impossible. So the objective is to win.”
Added Johnson: “I don’t think that is in our nature. I think everyone wants to win.”
Back home, fans who have taken to this U.S. squad — and gathered at viewing parties around the country — will take a two-hour break from the work day to see whether this Brazilian odyssey continues.
“It’s exciting not only for the team, but it’s exciting and important for everything that is going on back home,” U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said. “To be able to keep that level of interest for another four, five, six and hopefully more days would be great for the sport.”
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