OK, what’s going to happen? Is the US going to blow that win against Ghana and that draw against Portugal and find itself on a plane out of Brazil and headed back to the States to watch the rest of the World Cup on TV like the rest of us.
Or are the Americans going to gut out some sort of result against Germany, one of the best teams in the world, to advance to the knockout stages out of Group G, also known as the Group of Death?
Of course, there’s always the third option, lose and advance anyway because Portugal and Ghana draw or because of goal differential.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come down to that. And here’s how the US can avoid leaving their fate in others’ hands.
1. Defend, defend, defend
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the US come out in the same formation it had against Portugal, with a slant toward a defensive style but with five midfielders to allow it to attack from multiple angles. However, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann has done something different in each of the first two games, so who knows what he does against his former team.
With striker Jozy Altidore ruled out again for Thursday’s game against the Germans because of a hamstring injury, the US will probably start only Clint Dempsey up top again.
Against such a powerful German team (though a German team that couldn’t beat Ghana and often looked confused by the Black Stars’ speed), the US has to defend in numbers. The Americans obviously can’t afford to lose, but they essentially can’t afford to lose by more than one goal.
If the US loses and the Black Stars top Portugal, the first tiebreaker goes to goal differential. Entering Thursday the US is plus-1, Ghana is minus-1. Next up is total goals scored, with the US at four and Ghana at three. After that is head to head, which the US has in hand after beating Ghana 2-1. In other words, the US must defend and not give up goals.
Expect a defensive outlook early. But then again, with Klinsmann, who knows what he’s got up his sleeve.
2. Get Dempsey some help.
Dempsey is the most talented attacker on the US roster, even with a healthy Altidore. But Dempsey is much more effective when playing just under a lead striker.
With Dempsey alone up top he has no one to work with. But Captain America proved he can fulfill that solo role against Portugal. And even his first goal against Ghana was an extraordinary individual effort.
Imagine how much more of a threat he would be if he had someone to play off. If Klinsmann is going to keep that five-midfielder shape, maybe he can let Michael Bradley or Graham Zusi ignore some defensive effort to conserve energy for an effective counter attack. We know that’s somewhat counterintuitive to key No. 1, but the US is going to need to score at some point in the game.
Bradley had plenty of chances against Portugal, and Zusi found room up the right wing to deliver crosses. But if Zusi is going to play solely out wide, then Dempsey will need a partner to win those balls out of the air.
Maybe that partner doesn’t start out up top with the US captain, but don’t be surprised to see someone join him late in the game.
3. Make the Germans work on two fronts.
Ghana laid down blueprints on how to beat the Germans. They outworked them and outraced them. And still only came away with a draw.
But the speed of their flanks, and the possession their midfielders flashed through the middle had Germany on their heels a lot and showed teams that this Germany team might have a weakness or two. Die Mannschaft wasn’t sure where the Ghanaian attack was going to come from.
The US has a lot of similar qualities to Ghana. They can strike from the wings with Zusi, Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley, when he can get forward. And they can come at you up the middle with Bradley and a suddenly unstoppable Jermaine Jones.
If the US can keep its midfielders on the ball when they have possession and attack from the wings with speed, the Americans have a chance to steal three points and escape the World Cup’s toughest group with a trip to the knockout stages.