JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Perhaps there should have been a sign greeting the U.S. men's national team on its arrival into Brazil: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."
The Group of Death, like the event of death, doesn't leave much room for bargaining. Most soccer experts think it's terminal. The U.S. has to face the quick and physical Ghana, then the Ronaldos in the Amazon, then the mighty Germans: Bad, Worse, Wurst. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to jettison Landon Donovan only fueled the "Wait 'til next quadrennial" talk, which the coach's "we cannot win this World Cup" comment only bolstered.
Yet on the eve of this foregone conclusion, there are certain crosswinds blowing in the Americans' favor. Many of them are sudden – appearing as recently as this past weekend. Some of them have been there all along, like the possibility that the Germans might already be qualified for the knockout round when the Americans come along in the third match. Taken together, there's a case to be made that the Group of Death is not quite so lethal after all.
This goes beyond the kinks in the armor of the U.S. team's opponents, though there's that, too. Cristiano Ronaldo's nagging left knee injury makes the already-listless-looking Portugal team seem even a little more beatable (or at least tie-able). Germany just lost midfielder Marco Reus to an ankle injury. Ghana is certainly not Goliath.
But it's more than that: the U.S. looks more prepared for these opponents than most thought.
Start with Ghana, which compares in some important ways to the Nigeria team the U.S. beat here on Saturday. The day before that 2-1 decision at EverBank Field, Klinsmann explained the similarities, saying the Nigeria squad is "Very fit, very physical. It will give us a bit of a wakeup call, which is at this point what we really need. It will be a little bit of an indication of how to approach Ghana, and how to beat Ghana."
Klinsmann, as we've learned, doesn't bloviate. He meant that. Nigeria was a tune-up for Ghana, and the Americans came through with flying colors. True enough, Nigeria has been dreadful in patches, making Scotland look like the 2010 Spaniards a week before, but the U.S. side unveiled a 4-3-2-1 formation that kept them a step ahead of Nigeria for the entire game. Defense led quickly to offense, which is exactly what the U.S. must do against Ghana and any other team that can meet or beat them physically. Klinsmann saw this leading up to the game, saying the Nigerians were "sometimes a little overconfident in their technique," and the American counterstrike attacked that tendency very well indeed.
"Nigeria's a great team," said defender Matt Besler. "They're the champions of Africa. They have a lot of talented players. So for us it's a great win."
Another advantage the U.S. may have heading into this tournament is its stamina. The Americans came off the field buoyed by their conditioning on Saturday, understanding the balmy Florida weather – 80 degrees at game time with 69 percent humidity – would be a literal warm-up for Brazil. "Similar, very similar," said Besler. "We can use that to our advantage."
The Americans' endurance is no small thing considering, as midfielder Brad Davis, said, "Some guys, it's a little bit of a surprise, for guys at MLS coming into cities that have the heat." There was no surprise in this Florida city – "The guys did well, stayed hydrated, no one's cramping," said Chris Wondolowski without a trace of a knowing grin after the game Saturday – and that's despite Klinsmann's decision to force the players through intense workouts throughout these weeks.
"We haven't had some of the taper down going into games," Davis said. "So we continue to work into the games."
A strict training regimen isn't new to Klinsmann, but that doesn't mean it's any less valuable – especially going into the South American climate and trying to clog the middle of the field against two European squads. When asked to name the most important step taken by the team in the last month, Besler named several, but he named "fitness" first. "We're a fit team," he said. "We can wear teams down."
The two goals Saturday were memorable, but those following the team remember he played even better against Turkey and didn't score. Altidore's goal-less streak has been broken, but his streak of good play has continued apace. For all the talk about how the U.S. is going to deal with these three teams, the three teams have to deal with Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and the rapidly improving Fabian Johnson. And defensively, the only stalwart in the group is Germany.And they can do more than wear teams down if Jozy Altidore's performance here wasn't aberrant.
Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, what Klinsmann is doing seems to be working. His team has only improved from week to week. It's a small sample size, but his adjustments have shown up quickly and often clearly. He's already won a Gold Cup, and he's now won three straight World Cup lead-up games for the first time in U.S. history. Klinsmann is clearly an underpromise-overdeliver coach, making no bold statements about the swagger or heft of his team. Quite the contrary. Yet it was somewhat telling that after the Nigeria win, he offered little or nothing in the way of grievances. Instead he offered this: "We are ready."
There is no Landon Donovan. There is no imposing array of goal-scorers. And there is no stockpile of World Cup experience. But there is enough evidence to entertain the possibility that the galvanized U.S. team may just be Death-defying.
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