SAO PAULO – Since both the United States and Germany need nothing more than a tie in their final game of group play to advance to the knockout round of the World Cup, and since they face each other Thursday afternoon, and since Jurgen Klinsmann used to play and coach for the Germans, and since his former assistant is now their head coach, there is a sizeable school of thought not just that the two teams will conspire to draw but that they should.
This kind of wink-and-nod deal making (or outright plotted result) isn't new in soccer. The Germans may be the most famous examples, particularly back in the 1980s. And there is a group of American soccer followers who pretty much blindly believe anything that is done by Europeans should be hailed as ingenious, should be emulated in all ways and any criticism of it is the work of the uninitiated or ignorant.
Yeah, well, here's what fixing Thursday's match would be – lame … pathetic … uninspiring … pitiful … and, most importantly, completely nonsensical in the interest of actually benefitting the American team.
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For the record, Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati and a host of players all shot down the concept, repeatedly and directly, when it was first broached after the U.S. tied Portugal 2-2 on Sunday night. Some did so with a measure of anger.
"[Klinsmann has] answered it about 35 times," Gulati said bristling at the fact he had to even discuss the very concept. "Let me answer it real quick. That may have been the mentality in 1982. It is not the mentality of the U.S. team. We're going into that game to win the game. Full stop."
Of course, fair or not, what else are these guys going to say? Even if they were plotting out an easy, kick-it-back-and-forth tie, match fixing would call for massive FIFA suspensions and sanctions, not to mention possible criminal prosecution. No one is going to admit it. No one ever does. Yet it happens, or sure looks like it happens, in international soccer.
That leaves the U.S. program in the unenviable position of trying to disprove a negative while no one trusts what it says. They throw up their hands and point to the qualifying process of the last two World Cups and note that in the last game, with their spot already assured and nothing to play for but "American mentality," they went all out and affected the field. Fair enough, but that's a slightly different scenario.
So Gulati kept talking about how our culture would reject such a tactic.
"Was it at the Olympics that some badminton players got suspended?" said Gulati, mentioning a game fixing scandal centered on the Chinese at the 2012 Games. "It's not the mentality of the U.S."
The players scoffed at the entire concept, something of a smack in the face that they might not play to win.
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"It's not going to happen," defender Matt Besler said. "It's not going through the players' minds at all. We don't think of scenarios, we think about ourselves. We have our head down and we're trying to win games. That's all we're thinking about."
The opposition to an arranged draw here isn't some Pollyanna view that result fixing is somehow un-American. Business, politics, the legal system and so on in our country often is commonly rigged with backroom deals or clearly understood favor. It's actually part of the American way. And there are all sorts of examples across American sports of tanking and so on.
The Republic won't crumble because of a soccer game.
And while it'd be nice if the national team stood for something, at least something other than a dodgy tradition, it's more effective to look at this pragmatically.
This deal is an absolute dud, a heist. It is so vastly superior for the Germans, actually so tilted in their direction that if it went down they should don ski masks for Thursday's game and Klinsmann should have his sanity, if not loyalties, questioned.
A tie does put both teams through. However, Germany, by virtue of goal differential, would win Group G. The U.S. would come in second. This isn't equal. This isn't even close to equal.
The Americans would be forced to play Belgium, the expected champion of Group H and one of the top five favorites to win the entire World Cup.
They would do it in Salvador, a beach town in the northern part of the country and thus likely their fourth consecutive game in conditions that would be warm and thick (forecast: 70 percent humidity). The U.S.'s first three games were expected to range from extremely draining to straight up hellacious. They are already in desperate need of some cool, dry air.
Beat Germany, win the group outright and the U.S. instead would get to play either Algeria or Russia, both of whom have already lost to Belgium and are far lesser opponents. The Americans' chances of winning and making the Round of Eight would suddenly be quite good.
Moreover, the game would be in Porto Alegre, in the southern most part of Brazil, a benefit here in winter that would help both immediately and long-term if the U.S. advanced. The only downside – the only downside – is that the game would come with one fewer day of rest.
Looking far ahead, winning the group would set up a possible quarterfinal against France. With second place, if they could upset Belgium, the Americans would likely get Argentina. Again, advantage goes to beating Germany and winning the group.
The U.S. is well aware of all of this. It understands it could really use a victory. It's one reason why Monday's draw with Portugal stung so much.
"We want to win the game to finish top of the group," Gulati said. "So [a contrived result with Germany] is just not going to happen."
Then there is the off-the-field concerns, most notable lost opportunity. The national team plays just three to five World Cup games every four years. That's when it has the country's rapt attention. Players rarely last through more than a couple of these tournaments. So they want to take one of the just four or five games that truly matter until 2018 – and perhaps the last for Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, et al – and not try to win?
Tank in the World Cup? Maybe they should just take the field in Philadelphia 76ers jerseys.
It's difficult to claim something is a beautiful game if teams are dismissive of the result in the biggest games of players' careers. That may be the culture of soccer, but if so, it's one sorry, feeble part.
It's worth noting that even with a loss the U.S. can still advance, and even likely will advance. This isn't an either/or proposition.
Besides, is advancing to the knockout stage alone really the only goal? The Americans aren't going to sweep through and win the Cup, so this concept that just getting into the elimination round is all that matters and anything can happen is folly. That's the NFL playoffs, not the World Cup.
Germany might be able to think this way, but not the Americans.
The best part of the World Cup are the opportunities, in this case a head-on matchup with a world power, both sides in top shape, everyone watching and the chance to prevail. It's a rare, precious moment.
The U.S. is a developing soccer country. As such, defeating powerhouse Germany to win the vaunted "Group of Death" would be a far, far bigger deal – a far, far more celebrated moment of glory – than just reaching the elimination stage and then getting promptly eliminated by Belgium.
After all the fighting and scraping, all the sacrificing and dreaming, all the considerable effort that the American players have put forth in this tournament and it should end with a handcuffed effort just so U.S. Soccer could claim some empty barometer of success of getting out of group play, and then walk into a Belgium buzzsaw and hope for a miracle?
This is just stupid.
While U.S. Soccer does not have a rich history of success at the international level, it does have a well-established identity around the globe. It's known for its great fight, great determination and great heart. It's gritty and tough and what it lacks in skill, it makes up for in effort. You never get an easy game against the U.S. It's a legacy built over the decades.
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Klinsmann loves to talk about how he wants a team that reflects the nation's personality and those qualities are certainly among the ones that Americans like to see in themselves. So too is the idea of self-determination and confidence that can exceed reason.
To work the corners of some dubious soccer tradition is spit in the eye of all of that, not to mention the players and coaches that have come before.
"The U.S. knows only how to give everything it has in every game," Klinsmann said. "We have that fighting spirit and that energy and determination to do well in every single game."
He looked like he was already sick of the topic. The international press kept asking anyway.
"Our goal is to beat Germany," he said emphatically.
It better be.
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