RECIFE, Brazil – So Thursday brings the ultimate test for the United States soccer team – a showdown with Germany that will decide whether the World Cup has been a glorious success or a tantalizing bust.
Recife's Arena Pernambuco hosts a clash that provides the Americans the chance to progress to the tournament's round of 16 knockout stage and get out of pool play – the Group of Death no less – unscathed.
A thrilling victory over Ghana followed by a dramatic tie against Portugal has put the team on the brink of advancing, but there is still work to be done.
Here are the key issues heading into the big game.
What does the U.S. need to do?
It could turn out to be real simple. A victory Thursday and the U.S. will win Group G. A draw and it will qualify in second place in the group. Either way, progressing to the knockout bracket would be a major achievement for U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players, who entered the tournament as underdogs.
It could also get horrendously complicated. If the U.S. loses it would need the result between Portugal and Ghana – with that match beginning at the exact same time – to fall in its favor. A Portugal/Ghana draw would be perfect; in that instance the U.S. advances. A win by either club could vault it ahead of the Americans depending on tiebreakers. Expect to see Klinsmann receiving constant updates from the other game.
Is there a possibility of a fix?
You've probably heard about this by now, suggestions that the U.S. and Germany could play to a "convenient" draw that would see both teams advance to the next round. Adding fuel to the skeptics fire is that Klinsmann and Germany coach Jogi Loew are best pals and former colleagues.
So will it happen? The short answer – NO. For one, conspiring to fix a result is not only against FIFA regulations but is also illegal. Also, Klinsmann, Loew and both sets of players are proud men with competitive spirit.
Having said that, a draw is a more likely outcome than usual given the situation. Since neither team needs to win but a defeat could put either one in danger of elimination, a naturally more cautious approach may prevail. That's not fixing, it's common sense.
Didn't the U.S. look exhausted the other night?
It sure did. The heat and humidity of Manaus, where the team tied 2-2 with Portugal in a rough and physical match, must have taken some kind of toll. The players were shattered after their effort and mentally tortured by conceding a last-minute equalizer.
Responding from that will be a huge task. Preventative steps have been taken though, including ice baths, compression pants, rehydration drinks and structured meal plans.
Who needs to step up for the Americans?
There have been a series of heroic performances so far and the only U.S. player to have had two poor displays is the most unexpected of all – the usually rock-solid Michael Bradley.
The central midfielder has been short of his best and will be needed more than ever on Thursday, required to hustle and chase and try to disrupt the free-flowing Germany passing system.
Germany is better, right? How can the U.S. manage an upset?
It won't be easy. Defensive consistency is the key – much will be demanded of a backline that is still relatively untested. If it holds firm and gets protection from midfielders like Bradley, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones, then Klinsmann's team will be in the game.
Going forward, the team will still be without Jozy Altidore; captain Clint Dempsey could be asked to shoulder that burden again. For the Americans to create chances they will need to counter-attack, with speedsters like Fabian Johnson whipping in crosses from the flanks.
Why are there so many Germans on the field?
One of the things Klinsmann did when he took over as coach in 2011 was tap into a bunch of German-born, German-raised players who were eligible to play for the U.S. because at least one of their parents is American. Johnson, Jones, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks and Julian Green are all German speakers who have played all or most of their careers in that country.
What's going to happen?
A 1-1 draw that puts the U.S. through in second, where it will probably face Belgium.