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Bring It On! Team USA Progresses to Round 2

Team USA narrowly lost to Germany after a nail-biting 90 minutes, but it has five days to plan the destruction of Belgium.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

Let’s be honest: in purely sporting terms, today’s World Cup game between the U.S. and Germany was like a lukewarm hot dog without mustard. It lacked zing, it lacked spice, it didn’t even grease the bun… but if you were starving, it did the job.

Germany won a cakewalk, controlling the game from start to finish. Actually, let me correct that: Germany controlled the game for 93 of the 94 minutes played. In the very last minute, however, Team USA missed two clear chances to score.

First, Phillip Lahm, the tireless German defender, kept a surging Alejandro Bedoya at bay right in front of the German goal; then Clint Dempsey, who’d suffered a painful elbow to his already broken nose minutes earlier, fluffed a header that had “plausible goal” written all over it. So the score line stayed 1-0 as the final whistle blew—and justly so. An American goal would have been a travesty. You can’t save your best attacks for the 94th minute of a soccer game and expect to match the Germans.

If the game as a contest was largely one-sided—with the Germans clearly keeping ammunition in reserve—the afternoon in Recife, Brazil, was fraught with tension. A win or a draw would have been marvelous, but Team USA, realistically, needed to avoid a drubbing by the Germans to progress to the next round of the Cup. And its fate wasn’t entirely in its own hands: Portugal, playing its last group game simultaneously in Brasilia, a thousand miles away, had to do the U.S. a favor and beat Ghana.

This made for nail-biting drama of a wonderfully disembodied kind, with American fans keeping half an eye on another match, saying prayers on behalf of Portugal, the team that had soured the American dream only four days ago in sweltering Manaus. This parallel tension was on vivid display when Thomas Muller scored for Germany in the 55th minute, putting his team ahead, 1-0. Even as American hearts sank, news filtered through that Asamoah Gyan had scored a goal of quite breathtaking beauty against the Portuguese, making a Ghanaian win a realistic prospect. Cameras panning to American fans showed dispirited faces, furrowed brows.

The U.S. played its usual bustling game today, but the gulf in class between the two teams was laid naked with the first five minutes. German passed to German passed to German, the ball scarcely leaving a Teutonic boot, as the Americans chased and lunged to no avail. After 20 minutes of suffocating control, the Germans appeared to ease up, as if convinced that their opponents couldn’t possibly win (so why bust a gut in piling on the goals).

Conditions didn’t help Team USA: The biblical downpour that had hit Recife earlier in the day, flooding streets and knocking out public transportation, made for a sodden ground and a heavy ball, which went out of play much less frequently than it would have done in drier conditions. Long periods of ball-play sapped speed from the Americans, who were relying on fleet counter-attacks to score against the Germans. Most of all, Team USA missed Josy Altidore, its potent forward with the velocity of a sprinter, who was stretchered off with a torn hamstring in the first game against Ghana.

Germany will not be entirely satisfied with their win today: They missed numerous scoring chances even while playing in second gear, and their defense was worryingly leaden. Joachim Löw, the coach, has deployed four specialist center-backs in his defense, even as he uses Lahm, one of the best right-backs in the world, as a midfielder. France, its likely quarter-final opponents, could well waltz past this German defense as the Germans once waltzed past the Maginot Line.

As of this writing, Belgium would be Team USA’s next opponent. This offers a kind draw to the Americans: Belgium, while eye-catching and talented, is also youthful and inexperienced. In Thibaut Courtois, however, they have one of the most impenetrable ‘keepers in world soccer, very adept at handling the set pieces that Team USA relies on. (Need to name 10 famous Belgians? Try Courtois for starters…) The Americans will struggle to score against him; but they have five days in which to plot the downfall of Belgium. Five days, also, in which to bask in their own impressive achievements.