Even though he’d told the world his team wouldn’t win the World Cup, US soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann has told his players to make their plane reservations for home after July 13, when the final will be played in Rio de Janeiro.
“That’s just how you have to approach a World Cup,” said Klinsmann, whose odds-defying outfit takes on Belgium in the second round in Salvador Tuesday afternoon. “No matter what happens now you can always change your flights. So it’s better to start with the end in mind. The end is July 13.”
The end already has come for defending champion Spain and 21 others who have been booted out of this most topsy-turvy of tournaments. The Americans have refuted skeptics — as in most of the soccer-playing planet — who had them marked for death as soon as their group was drawn in December.
Not that they did it entirely on their own. The Germans all but terminated Portugal at the beginning with their 4-0 body-slam and Ghana did itself in with intramural squabbling and two gift goals to the Portuguese. From here onward, the US is on its own.
The knockout stage provides a simple and severe clarity. Points, tiebreakers, and what is or isn’t happening between other people in Brasilia no longer matters. You win or you check out. This is the fourth time the Americans, who are 1-10-5 with seven shutouts against European teams since they shocked England in 1950, will play for a place in the quarterfinals.
In 1994, when they lost, 1-0, to eventual champion Brazil in Palo Alto, they didn’t have a shot on goal despite playing a man up for almost all of the second half. In 2002, they blanked archrival and nemesis Mexico and earned a date with the Mannschaft. Four years ago they went out to Ghana in overtime.
Now comes a novelty, a European opponent in the round of 16. Belgium, which is playing in the tournament for the first time since 2002 and has survived the second round only once (1986), is a team on the rise. After failing to qualify for the last European championships, the Red Devils topped their Cup qualifying group by winning all five of their road matches.
“They’re a top team,” testifies US goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays with or against 11 of the Belgians in the English Premier League. “Everyone around Europe will tell you how good they are.”
Ten of the Red Devils, most notably captain Vincent Kompany (Manchester City), goalkeeper Thibault Courtois (Atletico Madrid) and midfielder Eden Hazard (Chelsea), play for powerhouse clubs that reached the Champions League knockout stage. Yet the Belgians were the least impressive of the eight group winners in Brazil, edging Russia and South Korea, 1-0, and Algeria, 2-1.
They didn’t score before the 70th minute in any of their matches and all but one of their tallies came from substitutes. And while the Red Devil defenders haven’t allowed a goal from the run of play, their back line hasn’t been subjected to sustained pressure. “They’re not all Ferraris, you know,” observed Algerian coach Vahid Halilhodzic. “They have some Skodas, too.”
Two of the Ferraris — Kompany (groin) and Thomas Vermaelen (hamstring) — have iffy transmissions and both are doubtful for Tuesday. So the Belgians are vulnerable to a team that will keep coming at them, which the Americans have done when they’ve had to but only when they’ve had to. “We’ve got to be more on the front foot,” said captain Clint Dempsey, who has scored two of the four US goals. “Play our game. Play more the way we did against Portugal.”
The Yanks played that way against the Portuguese because they fell behind in the fifth minute and had no choice but to force the issue. Against Ghana they were back on their heels after Dempsey’s first-minute strike and needed a set-piece goal from a backup defender to win in the 86th minute. Against Germany, when they needed only a draw, they couldn’t risk a multi-goal defeat so they played it safe.
Playing it safe in the second round gets you a ticket home. Since little was expected out of the Americans, they have little to lose by taking chances. “We have absolutely no fear at all,” said Klinsmann, whose squad lost its last two meetings with the Belgians. “We’re in position to challenge them. We have the foundation to beat them. Can we do it? Yes, we can.”
The US players are more experienced on the global stage than are the Belgians, they faced tougher rivals in group play and they’re healthier, especially with the return of striker Jozy Altidore, who missed the last two matches with a strained hamstring but should be available for duty off the bench to add oomph up front.
If the Costa Ricans, already in the quarters, can beat Uruguay and Italy and the Mexicans can draw with Brazil and push the Netherlands to the limit, the US should have the stuff to beat the Belgians. “We’re not world-beaters yet,” acknowledges Howard, “but we’re standing toe-to-toe with some big teams.” The Yanks have done that before on the global stage. The trick is to be the last team standing.