The U.S. men’s soccer team couldn’t beat Germany on Thursday, but still managed to move on thanks to their goal differential advantage over Ghana and Portugal. They’ll next face the young, talented Belgian team on Tuesday. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated joined Bill Littlefield to talk about the U.S.’s chances going forward.
BL: The U.S. got out of group play and into the knockout round, albeit with more suspense than might have been absolutely necessary. Is losing to Germany likely to have any impact on them going forward?
GW: I don’t think it will have any impact. This reminds me a lot of World Cup 2002, where the U.S. lost its last group stage game against Poland and still sort of backed into the round of 16 and then had the biggest win, in my opinion, in U.S. World Cup history, beating Mexico 2-0 in the second round and advancing to the quarterfinals. The U.S. players so far have been talking about how this is a new tournament starting. They’ve gotten through the group of death, but now things really get going.
BL: The U.S. did not score against Germany, and they scored just often enough to beat Ghana and tie Portugal. Is anybody still saying they’d have been better off offensively if all-time scoring leader Landon Donovan had not been left off the team?GW: You know, Donovan’s name hasn’t come up a lot down here. That said, Jozy Altidore came down with hamstring injury in the first game, and I do think having Donovan on the bench would have been helpful. Here’s a guy who has World Cup experience and can play forward.
But at this point, the focus is on the U.S. doing well in this tournament, advancing from the most difficult group, and in some ways [U.S. coach Jurgen] Klinsmann has been vindicated just by that success.
BL: U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley has been called by some “a world-class player” but he has not played especially well thus far in the tournament. Does the U.S. need for Bradley to improve in order to get any further?
GW: Yeah, they do. They need Bradley to be at the top of his game. The problem I think is that Bradley was given an entirely new position – an attacking central midfield role – just a couple of months ago and he may not be suited to be the playmaking number 10, attacking midfielder type. Maybe Kilnsmann’s asking just a little too much of Bradley in that position.
BL: Let us speak of Tuesday’s opponent. I have heard Belgium described as young, and they’ve been described somewhere as “oozing class and potential.”
GW: Well, they’re one of the most talented, young national teams in the world. When you look at the clubs where a lot of these players play, it’s very impressive. A lot of these guys are in their early 20s, mid-20s. So the question is, can they put it together on the field? In World Cup qualifying [matches] Belgium did do that. They’ve had a harder go of it at the World Cup, and that’s sort of a strange thing to say considering they won all three of their group games. But they didn’t get the winning goal until very late in the game, after looking very pedestrian for much of those games. I think they’re a beatable team, actually, by the U.S., especially if the U.S. plays its best possible game.
BL: Has anyone been more responsible than goalkeeper Tim Howard for the success of the U.S. to this point? (And no fair saying Germany by beating Portugal by four goals.)
GW: Howard has been terrific. And I knew coming into the tournament that he would have to have a really good performance here for the U.S. to advance from the group stage and give themselves a shot in this knockout round, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Just a lot of good saves, really in every single game of the tournament. I think Howard is one of the best goalkeepers here in Brazil. Howard has the ability to keep the U.S. in games that maybe it shouldn’t be in, and he’s a great asset to have.
BL: You’ve been in Brazil since before the start of the tournament. Give me your impressions of the impact of the World Cup there, positive or negative.
We got a firsthand example of that in Recife on Thursday when there were torrential rains, and the city’s not designed for drainage. There was severe flooding in Recife, but then you drive outside the city to the FIFA-standard stadium, and there’s no flooding at all. You can get a real understanding of why people are angry here about having this event and about all the money being spent on it.