RECIFE, Brazil – Sometimes even when you lose at the World Cup, you win, as the United States showed when it qualified for the round of 16 despite a defeat to Germany on Thursday.
The Americans would obviously have loved to win Group G instead of finishing behind the Germans, but in the end, they might be better off being runners-up.
Finishing first in the so-called Group of Death would have set up a round-of-16 clash in Porto Alegre on Monday, just four days after playing the group finale in Recife against Germany. Now, the U.S. will get the luxury of an extra day to play in Salvador, where it will face Belgium.
Jurgen Klinsmann's team is struggling physically. A number of factors can be attributed to the Americans' situation: a grueling travel schedule, their hard-working style of play, the weather conditions they've played in and the general toil involved in getting out of a tough World Cup group.
The additional recovery time could be worth its weight in gold.
"For us it is good to have one day more rest," U.S. assistant coach Andreas Herzog said. "I think the guys need a rest. We could see it [Thursday]. We had a great fight but in possession we didn't do really well. We have to be fresh to have a real fight in the knockout phase.
"We could see it when we had one day less rest than the Germans. They tried as hard as possible but you have to make quick and better decisions."
Obviously, in most cases winning the group provides an advantage in terms of the caliber of opponent. By winning Group G, Germany will take on Group H runner-up Algeria, ranked 22nd in the world, instead of group winner and 11th-ranked Belgium.
But fitness and scheduling factors can play a significant role, too.
When the U.S. was knocked out of the World Cup in 2010, it had only a three-day turnaround after beating Algeria to top its group before losing to Ghana in the round of 16. The current American side has been a hard-working and gritty bunch in all three of its games with a defense (including midfielders Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley) that has had to put in great effort each time.
The U.S. played poorly on Thursday but it also was coming off 27 hours less rest than Germany. The Americans have also had to contend with the heat of Manaus – where they played their second game against Portugal – and the heavy conditions caused by torrential rain in Recife.
"We had to really fight against Ghana and then Portugal," Herzog added. "For us it is always important to have fresh legs to do a better job in possession, but when you are always chasing the ball and you lose it too often you have to waste another lot of energy to win the ball back."
The importance of rest at this World Cup can't be underestimated. Of the nine games in this tournament where one team played its previous match a day earlier than its opponent, the record for those fresher sides is 5-2-2.
"We don't have the luxury to say all the players will go every four days in games and will always be at the highest level," Klinsmann said. "The effort and commitment we have shown is outstanding."
Belgium has had a fairly comfortable time of things in Brazil, both in terms of opposition and travel schedule. Currently one of the more highly-regarded European teams, the Belgians won all three games in Group H, arguably one of the weakest pools in the competition, and they enjoyed comfortable travel between the major cities in southern Brazil from Belo Horizonte to Rio de Janeiro to Sao Paulo. In that sense, the heat and humidity of Salvador, in the north, might be a step into the unknown.
Belgium will come in as the favorite, but the U.S. could be mightily grateful for its extra rest and chance to rejuvenate, which should ensure both teams come into the game with similar levels of energy and freshness.
In that sense at least, perhaps second will prove to be best, after all.
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