Much has changed since that brisk night in Rustenburg, South Africa, four years ago. The lingering cold of an elimination loss hurts — it cuts deep to the bone, and American soccer fans have grown accustomed to the feeling. It’s now been over four years since Asamoah Gyan sliced a volley from 15 yards by Tim Howard in the third minute of extra time in the last knockout-round match the United States men’s national team played in. The Ghanian star ended that era of American soccer.
But the sting of the elongated wait is over. The Americans are back in the final 16, having survived the "Group of Death," having dispatched of Ghana, drawn with Portugal and lost to Germany. Change was inevitable after the 2010 World Cup and in that wave of change came a new coach, an evolving cast of stars and new crew of role players constructed to complement one another. Jurgen Klinsmann calls the shots now, hired in the summer of 2011 to heighten soccer senses and survive unfortunate draws like a group filled with that kind of star power, smile in its face and advance.
A 1-1-1 result through three games never looked better to the still growing, still learning followers of soccer in this country. With that comes another berth in the elimination stages — its third in the last four World Cup tournaments — Tuesday against Belgium in the coastal city of Salvador. For all the hype surrounding Klinsmann’s hire and talk of implementing tactical changes and altering styles of play and attack, the time is now for this particular group of Americans to play the best soccer of their lives.
Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman is living up to that high standard. An international afterthought under the previous two World Cup regimes, the 32-year-old RSL captain is flourishing in a starting role for the U.S. He’s drawn the assignment of quelling Ghana counterattacks, locating Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo and finding ways to slow down a German team some consider the best in the world.
The Belgians are up next. It’s largely considered a generational group of players with young, dangerous talent in nearly every position on the field.
"You’ve got dynamic players in Portugal, Germany and now Belgium. A lot of it is going to be similar," Beckerman said in a conference call with local media Monday. "Not let them come through the middle, stay tight to guys and when we get [the ball], be sharp and break with some pace and then it’s all about making the right decisions in the final third," he said. "Each game we try and keep improving on that and hopefully we can improve on that as well."
Against Germany in the final stage of Group G play, the U.S. did not impress offensively. Outside of a long, curling shot by Graham Zusi that zipped over the crossbar in the first half, the Americans didn’t have a real chance on goal until stoppage time. In an elimination match, tactics change. Teams aren’t studying the scoreboard and biting nails over other results. It’s about outplaying, out-coaching and outwitting the opposition.
As nearly each match has proved, this particular World Cup remains up in the air. Two of the most impressive teams in group play, France and Germany, were pushed to the brink by two less-heralded squads in Nigeria and Algeria. A win against Belgium gets the Americans a date with either Argentina or Switzerland in the quarterfinal stage, with the odds resting on the brilliance of Lionel Messi to push his team further into the tournament.
It was revealed Monday that forward Jozy Altidore, after playing just 20 minutes in the group stage before suffering a hamstring strain, would be available against Belgium. Throw in the fact that Arsenal captain and Belgium defender Thomas Vermaelen is out and Manchester City defender Vincent Kompany is questionable, and the stars could align for the U.S. to make a memorable run in Brazil.
"You just feel it in the air that the World Cup’s here," RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said.
As are Klinsmann and Co., out to keep things rolling for at least one more round.
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