By Aaron Hampton
It wasn’t easy or pretty, but there was something so American about the way the United States qualified for the knockout round of the World Cup. Michael Bradley talked in the lead up to the World Cup about wanting to be the that can suffer the most, and that in itself sums up the war of attrition the United States overcame in making it out of the group.
Take the loss of Jozy Altidore for example. Losing your number one striker would be a major blow for any team, but more so for the United States and Klinsmann’s preference for running a 4-2-3-1 formation. Now you can make what you want of Altidore’s form heading into the World Cup, but the fact remains no one on the roster can fill his shoes as the lone man upfront for the United States in that formation, with neither Clint Dempsey, Chris Wondolowski, nor Aron Johanasson as adept at playing with their backs to goal. Yet, without their target man upfront the United States were still able to brave a lethal attacking threat in Ghana just long enough for John Brooks to etch his name into folklore with his brilliant header in the dying embers of that opening game.
Even more important than the three points taken from the win against Ghana was how the United States responded to dominating large portions of their match against Portugal, only to see Portugal salvage a draw behind a momentary defensive lapse and a picture-perfect cross from Cristiano Ronaldo. A win in that game would have sent the United States through to the knockout round with a game in hand against Germany, however it wasn’t meant to be and the United States faced Germany with their berth in the knockout round far from secure.
And while the United States came away on the short end of there match against Germany, there performance was gritty, determined, and everything needed in order to make it through to the next round.
That’s not to say there is no work that needs to be done to the squad by the time the knockout round begins. Michael Bradley will definitely need to improve his form heading into the next round. While the United States clawed its way out of the group stage without the best performances from Bradley, eventually during this tournament they will run into a point where they will need the steel reserve of Bradley to push them through. His touch and decision making haven’t been what we are accustomed to seeing from Bradley, but with the group stage behind and essentially a new tournament starting with the knockout stage, it’s now or never for Bradley.
The health of Jozy Altidore will determine whether the United States’reverts back to a 4-2-3-1 or if Klinsmann continues to tinker away at the formation to find the perfect mix without the Sunderland striker. The United States went to a 4-5-1 against Germany with Clint Dempsey upfront, and the results were mixed at best. While Dempsey is serviceable at that role upfront, it’s clear he’s more effective linking play and making runs at goal in contrast to playing with his back to goal.
The back line of the United States has been a lingering question mark for the team since World Cup qualifying, and that’ll also be an interesting area to keep an eye on as the team moves forward. While I believe both Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley have both right and left back cemented respectively, the center back position still poses a question for the United States. Omar Gonzalez looked impressive against Germany, neutralizing a few German attacks with monster clearances, and it will be interesting to see if he slots in next to Matt Besler in the middle of that back four.
To say the United States has come a long way since their 2-1 loss to Honduras during World Cup qualifying would be an understatement. That loss, arguably the lowest point of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team, brought with it questions about his leadership style, tactics, and overall suitability for the job handed to him after the firing of Bob Bradley. Fast forward to the present with the United States advancing out of the “Group of Death”and to a knockout round showdown with either Belgium or Algeria, and it’s clear to see that not only was that loss an aberration, but that there’s a grit to this team we didn’t see before. A decidedly American grit that will see them through to the knockout round.