SAO PAULO – Surviving the World Cup's Group of Death didn't teach this United States team anything new about itself. The surprising achievement merely reinforced what it already knew.
"I think we always had faith that we would get out of the group, so we always have had confidence," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "I think it is good that we have always believed and it is just nice to see everyone else starting to rally behind us."
Beating Ghana, drawing with Portugal and qualifying for the round of 16 despite losing to Germany confirmed some pre-tournament theories about Jurgen Klinsmann's squad (for instance, the U.S. wasn't going anywhere without Tim Howard being Tim Howard) and disproved some popular beliefs (such as the U.S. wasn't good enough to go through to the second round).
However, the group phase also revealed previously unknown truths about Klinsmann's men – and Klinsmann. Heretofore, we did not know that:
Jermaine Jones is a force of nature … on offense.
First of all, Jones has been the U.S.'s best player, Howard included. He has been the much-needed enforcer defensively but has not been the reckless tackler that makes American supporters think he's a red card waiting to happen.
His impact on the attack is where the 32-year-old Jones has been cast in a new and positive light. Playing further up the pitch at left midfield in the first two games gave him license to seek scoring opportunities, and there was no better reward for his tireless work than the wonder strike against Portugal, a long-range rocket that brought the U.S. even at 1-1.
"He's one of the tough guys," Howard said. "He gets in there and he grinds and he's been fantastic for us."
Jose Mourinho is a fan of Kyle Beckerman.
Yes, it's true. Watch The Special One sing Beckerman's praises.
Mourinho loves hardnosed midfielders who sacrifice their bodies for the good of the team, and that is exactly what Beckerman has done as the U.S.'s primary defensive midfielder.
"He has been crucial for us," Gonzalez said, "because he is sitting there in front of us, protecting us and stopping those entry passes that can sometimes hurt you."
Beckerman's superb play is also another feather in the cap of Major League Soccer, which had a lot at stake going into this World Cup with so many MLS players on the roster. Yes, Klinsmann still wants America's young talents to develop their games in Europe, but, as Beckerman and his MLS brethren have shown, America's domestic league can ball with the world's best.
The inexperienced backline isn't that bad after all.
They were supposed to be Team USA's Achilles heel, but the defenders in front of Howard have acquitted themselves well against three of the tournament's most intimidating attacking sides.
Sure, there have been some glaring mistakes (most notably Geoff Cameron's sliced clearance that led to a fifth-minute goal for Portugal) and fortuitous missed chances by the opposition (yes, we're talking about you Ghana). But the first-choice foursome of Fabian Johnson, Cameron, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley have been solid for the most part, working together to maintain a collective whole that is greater than the sum of their individual skills.
John Brooks' late-game heroics against Ghana (defensively as much as offensively) and Omar Gonzalez's steady effort against Germany showed that the Americans do have defensive depth.
Landon Donovan wasn't needed after all.
This revelation is perhaps the most surprising.
Surely, Donovan supporters were ready to blast social media with I-told-you-sos after Jozy Altidore went down with a hamstring strain 21 minutes into the Ghana game. The situation would've been perfect for Donovan to step right in as the second forward working off newly anointed target man Clint Dempsey or, more realistically, provide a late offensive spark as game-changing superb sub.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the last 16: The U.S. didn't struggle for goals. Dempsey needed only 29 seconds to score, Graham Zusi came off the bench to deliver the corner kick that set up Brooks' game-winner against Ghana and DeAndre Yedlin provided the pace and pass that led to Dempsey's go-ahead goal against Portugal.
Donovan's staunchest backers likely remain unconvinced, though, for one reason and one reason only: The U.S. has yet to take a penalty kick – a task at which Donovan excels.
Jurgen Klinsmann believes that they will win.
Not the World Cup. The next game. And the game after that.
It became the new rallying cry of Klinsmann as soon as his team made it through to the knockout round. The coach who shielded himself with pragmatic realism, even going as far as saying "we cannot win this World Cup," suddenly shifted his attitude and outlook to enthusiastic dreamer, imploring his players to believe that anything can happen now in the often unpredictable phase of single-elimination Cup tournament play.
Klinsmann isn't just borrowing a page from the book of friend and master motivator Pete Carroll, the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl-winning coach. He is reciting it word for word to the U.S. team and to the media every chance he gets.
"I think if everybody goes to his own personal limits in context of the team, we’re going to go further in this tournament," Klinsmann said on Friday. "But you’ve got to realize that moment."
This moment of possible new truths arrives Tuesday in Salvador.
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