The PJ Tatler

The US Men's Soccer Team Can Still Make the World Cup Knockout Round. But It Won't Be Easy.

Let’s just state the obvious first: US Men’s National Soccer Team captain Clint Dempsey is a warrior. A beast.

The man from Nacogdoches, Texas scored the opening goal in the World Cup opening round match vs. Ghana in all of 32 seconds. Later in the match a Ghanaian player kicked him in the face, breaking Dempsey’s nose.

Dempsey not only did not come off for that injury. He played through, and decided not to wear a protective mask for the second round match vs. Portugal. So he faced off against one of the best international teams in the world with a face full of pain. Every header must have been excruciating for him.

Against Portugal, Clint Dempsey was dangerous all night.

Dempsey not only had one of his best games in the American shirt vs. Portugal Sunday night, he scored the goal that looked like it would put the Americans through to the knockouts, while knocking out world 4th ranked Portugal at the same time. It was a warrior’s goal, an ungraceful belly bump that sent the ball into the Portuguese net in the 81st minute.

Portugal. That would be the team that includes Cristiano Ronaldo, the current holder of the World’s Best Player title. A team with a roster of Champions League players with a better than outside chance of winning it all.

If you missed either of Dempsey’s performances in this year’s World Cup, you’ve missed something special. Something grandparents tell the grandkids about.

Dempsey’s heroic performances haven’t been enough, though, to guarantee the Americans a place in the World Cup’s last 16. With time expiring Sunday night and the US holding an improbable 2-1 lead thanks to Jermaine Jones and Dempsey’s second half, come-from-behind strikes, US midfielder Michael Bradley committed one of his six-dozen turnovers in the tournament, the Americans were stretched too far forward, the ball came to Ronaldo down the right, the World’s Best Player who had been mostly anonymous to that point. He curled in a nanometer-perfect cross to Portugal substitute Silvestre Varela, and the game finished 2-2. Varela’s header off Ronaldo’s cross was the last move of the match. It was a heartbreaking way to overachieve, for the Americans.

Group G stands like this: Germany in first with 4 points thanks to a 4-0 win over Portugal and a 2-2 tie with Ghana, +4 on goals. The US in second on four points thanks to its 2-1 win over Ghana and the 2-2 tie with Portugal, +1 on goals. Ghana in third with one point and -1 on goals. Portugal on one point and -4 on goals.

I think most US Men’s Team fans would regard this current position as better than expected, going into the tournament. Group G is the Group of Death. No one really expected the US to have beaten Ghana and come within an inch of roping Ronaldo in the opening two matches. Plus, it’s four more points than England and Spain have. Spain won the World Cup four years ago. England invented soccer. They’re both out of the tournament after two losses, zero points.

Right now, America is better than England at its own game. Perhaps England should consider playing as Great Britain from now on, just to take on the two young world class players available in Wales.

Thursday’s two simultaneous matches will decide who escapes Group G and who dies there in the Group of Death. The Americans could have escaped it already, had that last-kick goal not happened. That midfield giveaway could turn out to have been fatal. Similar giveaways against Germany will create a rout.

Instead, the US needs a win or a draw versus Germany. Either result will see the US through. A draw would send both the US and Germany through — cue the conspiracy theories. Germany only needs a draw, in fact, to win the group. They don’t have to be at their best on Thursday. A draw could keep them from having to face Portugal again at some point in the later stages, when Portugal would play to avenge that opening round humiliation. They could rest a couple of players, but that’s risky too. A US win plus a Ghana hammering of Portugal could leave the Germans out of the knockouts. Very unlikely, but not impossible. Ronaldo isn’t 100% fit. If he goes out early on Thursday, Portugal are lost without him. Ghana have firepower and could punish them.

If the Americans lose to Germany — very possible, as Germany are ranked second in the world and are world class at every position, and arguably have the best midfield in international soccer — then the path to the knockouts gets murkier.

If the US lose by 2 or more to Germany, then Ghana has a clear path to the knockouts: Beat Portugal by any score. The team that knocked the US out of the World Cup in 2006 and 2010 would have done it again.

Portugal needs the US to lose to Germany by four or more. Unlikely, but not impossible. If that happens and Portugal beats Ghana Thursday, then Germany and Portugal get through. Ghana defend well, though. Portugal has the least likely route out at this point.

If both matches end in draws, then Germany and the US both go through. And Clint Dempsey gets to warrior on.

The showdown is at noon Eastern time Thursday.