They’ve played the Mannschaft for higher stakes than this. The US men’s soccer team lost, 1-0, to the Germans in the World Cup quarterfinals in 2002 and was a bounce or two of the ball from the final four.
“We tried everything we could and we were lucky to win,” acknowledged goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, whose Teutonic teammates emitted an exhausted exhalation that could have been heard all the way from Ulsan to Essen.
The Americans might have been 300-1 shots that summer, but they went at the three-time champs with snap and snarl. That’s how they’ll have to go at Deutschland again Thursday afternoon in their group finale in Recife if they want to reserve their seat in the second round along with regional neighbors Costa Rica and Mexico.
While the US can advance with a draw — and possibly even with a defeat — it would rather drop a star-spangled calling card with a victory.
“We will try everything to win this game,” vowed midfielder Jermaine Jones, who was born in Frankfurt and is married to a former Miss Germany. “We don’t go into this game and say, maybe a draw happens, it will be enough. We want to go there and show people that we can battle and we can beat the Germans.”
The Yanks did it a year ago this month in their nation’s capital, but that match was a friendly encounter. They’ve played Germany twice in the Cup and haven’t yet dented the net. The Mannschaft punked them in Paris in their 1998 debut, but the rematch in Korea was a revelation.
“It shows the world we can play,” then-coach Bruce Arena declared.
That German squad went on to meet Brazil in the final. Jurgen Klinsmann coached the next Cup team, which was dropkicked out of Dortmund by Italy in the semis. Five members of that group — captain Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, Lukas Podolski, and Miroslav Klose — play for this one, and Klinsmann, who now coaches Uncle Sam’s entry, knows everything about them, from their passport numbers to their boot sizes.
Five of his German-American players (four of whom play in the Bundesliga) are conversant with their rivals as well — Jones, fellow midfielder Julian Green, and defenders Fabian Johnson, John Anthony Brooks Jr., and Timmy Chandler.
Brooks is the skywalker whose header beat Ghana. Jones curled Portugal’s hair with a sizzler that put his mates on the board and set the stage for Clint Dempsey’s navel-knocker that might have been the winner that would have put the US through.
Though the Yanks undeniably were “gutted” by their last-minute near-miss, they’re still well-positioned to advance.
“Four points after two matches,” mused midfielder Graham Zusi. “I think any of us would have taken that.”
The Spaniards, Italians, and English couldn’t manage it and already are packed and gone. Their 4 points give the Americans four favorable scenarios Thursday. If they win, they’ll top the group and likely would face Algeria in the Round of 16. If they draw — or if Portugal and Ghana do the same — the US probably will meet Belgium. If the Portuguese win by three goals or fewer and the Americans lose by just one, they’ll still escape from the Group of Death.
But they’re shooting for the first scenario.
“The message is simple,” said Klinsmann, who can do without all the arithmetic. “We want to beat Germany. We want to be first in our group. So we’re not thinking about a tie.
“We cannot just hope that it goes our way. We have to work hard for it.”
Time and distance won’t be favoring the US. The Germans, who tied Ghana Saturday in Fortaleza, will have an extra day’s rest. The Americans will be coming back from the Amazon jungle, and every team that’s played there (England, Italy, Cameroon, Croatia) has lost its subsequent outing.
And the conditions in coastal Recife will be draining.
“The heat will be there and it will be humid,” Klinsmann observed. “I think we are very well prepared for that.”
The US road to Brazil came through Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Panama. They’re used to dehydration and derision. It’s no coincidence that the Ticos and Tricolores, who took the same sweat-soaked route, have advanced.
The longer the Yanks can keep on the run in Recife, the more they can push the pace, the better it will be for them against an opponent that didn’t play a qualifying match south of Vienna and struggled visibly in the late stages against Ghana.
The challenge for the US will be to still be contending as the clock ticks down. The Germans, who are experts at dissecting back lines, can carve up opponents who don’t risk and punish those who do.
“Every team who comes up against us has to swallow hard,” said striker Thomas Mueller, who had a hat trick against Portugal. “That was our aim — we wanted to be uncomfortable opponents.”
The Mannschaft was that way when Klinsmann played for it in the ’90s and it hasn’t changed. Nor has the directive from home.
“The expectations in Germany are very simple,” said Klinsmann. “They’ve always got to win it.”
His expectations for his own team are considerably more modest. The Americans are universal long shots to win the Cup, but they have the goods and the gumption to get as far as they did a dozen years ago in Korea. All they have to do is dare to.