Commentary: United States can continue to exceed expectations

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 12.45.24 AM
United States’ Fabian Johnson, left, andGermany’s Lukas Podolski challenge for the ball during the group G World Cup soccer match between the USA and Germany at the Arena Pernambuco in Recife, Brazil, Thursday, June 26. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

It’s been a strange World Cup for the United States so far. They won against Ghana 2-1, lost to Portugal 2-2 and won against Germany 0-1.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

First was the opener against Ghana, the team who had knocked them out of the past two World Cups. Clint Dempsey scored less than a minute in, which would prove important later. Ghana held possession and outplayed the United States before finally breaking through in the 82nd minute to tie the game.

Then, the most unlikely of goal-scorers became an American hero.  21-year-old substitute defender John Anthony Brooks, who only came on because Matt Besler injured his hamstring in the first half, scored the game-winner off a beautiful corner kick from fellow substitute Graham Zusi. The demons of the past two World Cups were exercised and the United States had three points to start the group stage.

Next up was Portugal, led by arguably the best player in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo. They gave up an early goal off of an ugly defensive miscue from Geoff Cameron, but managed to score two second half goals to take the lead with ten minutes to go. However, Ronaldo finally decided to play like the best player in the world with less than a minute to go and sent in a perfect cross to Silvestre Valera, who finished the goal with a header.

The final score was 2-2 but to the United States it felt like a loss. They were twenty seconds away from clinching a berth in the knockout round, but let the win slip from their fingers at the last second. They were in good position to still make it to the knockout round, owning a five-goal differential over Portugal and a two-goal differential over Ghana. The United States and Germany each had four points going into the final day, Portugal and Ghana had one. Even if Portugal or Ghana were to win that matchup and earn three points, all the United States had to do was tie with Germany and they’d still go through. Even a slim loss would have been good for the United States as long as the other two teams in the group didn’t catch up to them in goal differential.

Although nerve-wracking, the slim loss worked, a 1-0 victory to the Germans. Portugal beat Ghana, tying the United States on points but losing to the Americans on goal differential. It was a match loss for the United States, but it felt like a win since they secured advancement to the next round.

What is even stranger, however, is that the United States was never even supposed to make it out of this group. Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann lowered expectations before the Cup, saying there was no chance the United States would win. Part of that statement surely had to do with their group. It was the “group of death” because of perennial powerhouses Germany and Portugal, African giants Ghana and the best team from the North and Central American region, the United States. While the United States were considered good, very few thought they would make it out of the group when they had Germany and Portugal to deal with.

They exceeded expectations and now are in the single-elimination knockout round, part of the 16 teams still alive in the tournament. They face a Belgium side Tuesday afternoon who’s “B-team” handily spanked the Americans 4-2 last May in a friendly. It would seem that the American Dream might come to and end against the Belgians but this World Cup has shown us that anything can happen, cliché aside.

A Costa Rica team that many thought would be lucky to get a draw ended up winning their group while Italy and England were sent home. The Greeks rallied late to secure a surprise spot in the knockout stage as well. Algeria outlasted Russia and South Korea to make it to the knockout round. A Mexican squad that barely qualified for the tournament held the powerful hosts Brazil to a scoreless draw.

Despite how good the Belgians may be, the United States hung close with the fourth ranked (Portugal) and second ranked (Germany) teams in the world, according to FIFA rankings. Some would argue that the United States have already exceeded expectations and that any successes from here are just gravy. There’s also an argument to be had that more should be expected from the Americans based on their group stage performance. Belgium is good, but the United States can beat this team. They’ve shown the potential to stay with the supposed powerhouses, and there’s no reason they cannot do it again Tuesday.