The Road to Brazil
The qualification cycle leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil was all about one man: Jurgen Klinsmann. After years of flirtations by Klinsmann and pursuit by US Soccer, the former Germany coach finally agreed to coach the United States.
The hiring of Klinsmann drew much fanfare in the American soccer community. Up to that point, the United States had always been scrappy and hard working. Relying on a determination of will over an actual tactical plan.
With Klinsmann, that was all set to change. He promised to give the United States a footballing identity by playing “proactive, attacking soccer.” He also planned on overhauling the entire federation as he took on the role of technical director.
The United States Soccer Federation had put all of their eggs in the Klinsmann basket.
Qualification under Klinsmann went well. The United States won the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup easily and finished first in the confusing “Hexagonal” CONCACAF qualifiers. Klinsmann was rewarded with a new contract, keeping him with US Soccer through 2018, even though they had yet to play in a World Cup.
American soccer under Klinsmann was changing, but not entirely in the way he promised.
Using his connections and reputation in his native Germany Klinsmann tapped into the dual-national talent pool. Because of the United States military presence in Germany since the end of World War II and its military installation at Ramstein Air Base in Kaiserslautern, a few professional footballers were playing in Europe that qualified for the United States due to their American servicemen fathers.
Five players, who were given the moniker of “Jurgen-Americans” by the press, became regulars in the United States squad in the lead up to the World Cup. The players were Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, and Julian Green.
It wasn’t just German-American’s he went after. Klinsmann continued the “Euroization” of the American team by bringing in Icelandic-American Aron Johannsson, and Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud. It’s possible without the influence of Klinsmann, these players may not have committed to the United States.
Regional success was great, but the big test for Klinsmann and his men would be at the World Cup in Brazil. There was excitement and optimism for their big test on the global stage.
Then came the draw.
It couldn’t have been worse for the United States. The United States was drawn into the tournament’s “Group of Death.” They were grouped with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, Ghana, who had beaten the United States in the previous two tournaments, and Klinsmann’s native Die Mannschaft, Germany.
“It is one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw,” Klinsmann said. “It couldn’t get any more difficult or any bigger, but that is what the World Cup is all about.”
As if having two of the world’s top 3 ranked teams in your group wasn’t bad enough, the United States would be forced into a challenging travel schedule and a match in Manaus, a city so remote in the Amazon jungle that it’s only accessible by plane.
“We discussed before the draw that there could be some difficult schedules and we hit the worst of the worst. Every coach said, ‘Anything but Manaus’ and we got Manaus.”
Klinsmann would have to earn his money the hardest way possible. Failing to get out of the group stage after years of anticipation would be incredibly deflating to the whole Klinsmann experiment.
Jurgen Klinsmann talked all the time about getting players out of their comfort zone and pushing players to play at the highest possible level. This led to some controversy. He publicly criticized players for staying in Major League Soccer when they could be playing overseas. There were even some in the media who criticized Klinsmann for bringing in too many dual-nationals despite the elite-level clubs they were playing for.
However, those controversies paled in comparison to the furor caused when he left American legend Landon Donovan off the 23-man roster. Klinsmann called the decision “the toughest decision in my coaching career”, but that he saw “other players slightly ahead of him.”
Leaving Donovan at home proved to be a talking point for the weeks leading up to the tournament. The two men were very different players, with Klinsmann exhibiting typically German professionalism and drive. Donovan was a player who had always been more vulnerable. In a move that Klinsmann would never have been able to relate to, Donovan took a brief hiatus from both his club and country to get physically and mentally refreshed.
The two men were incredibly different and never connected like you’d imagine the new head coach would want to with the greatest player the country had ever produced.
Nevertheless, the squad was set.
Nearly half the roster was made up of players playing in Major League Soccer, and seven players with dual-national status. It was up to them to see their way through the most challenging group in the tournament.
USMNT World Cup 2014 Roster
Group Stage (Group G)
United States vs Ghana (2-1)
Date: 16 June 2014
Venue: Arena das Dunas, Natal
The American’s World Cup campaign couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. After just 29 seconds, Clint Dempsey fired home the 5th fastest goal in World Cup history to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead.
The United States kept the pressure on Ghana, searching for a second, but it wouldn’t come. Despite the incredible start, tragedy struck for the United States when Jozy Altidore was stretchered off in the 21st minute with a hamstring injury.
Finally, in the 81st minute, Ghana equalized through a well taken Andre Ayew equalizer. The striker blasted a shot with the outside of his boot past Tim Howard. It looked like the run of misfortune against the Black Stars would continue for the United States.
That was until the 85th minute when German-born John Brooks headed home a corner kick for the match-winner. Brooks’ reaction to scoring the goal was one of the most memorable moments in this run for the States. He was overcome by the moment and collapsed to the turf with joy. They had done it, he had done it.
It was the perfect start to a difficult group.
United States vs Portugal (2-2)
Date: 22 June 2014
Venue: Arena da Amazonia, Manaus
Portugal opened the scoring in the 4th minute when Nani blasted home a ball that was misplayed by center back Geoff Cameron. The Massachusetts native tried to clear a through-ball, but his pass dribbled past him and into the path of Nani at the back post. The Americans had it all to do now.
The United States was knocking on the door through chances by Fabian Johnson and Michael Bradley, but the game remained scoreless. The match remained tied until the 63rd minute when the United States earned a corner kick.
The Portuguese did a poor job of clearing the ball and it fell to Jermaine Jones at the edge of the 18-yard box. He took a touch to his right and fired home a curler into the side netting of Beto’s goal. The keeper was rooted to his spot with nothing to do but watch the American’s celebrate.
The United States went ahead in the 80th minute when a cross from Graham Zusi found the stomach of Clint Dempsey and eventually the back of the net. It wasn’t Dempsey’s prettiest goal, but they all count, especially in the World Cup.
They looked poised to snatch an incredible victory until the 4th minute of stoppage time when Silvestre Varela got onto the end of a Cristiano Ronaldo header. Varela had beaten Geoff Cameron to the ball and he was rewarded for his effort.
With 4 points from two matches and a positive goal differential, the United States was in an excellent position. Portugal had lost its first match to Germany 4-0, so to overtake the United States they would have to beat Ghana by a larger margin than the United States would lose to Germany on the final matchday.
United States vs Germany (0-1)
Date: 26 June 2014
Venue: Itaipava Arena Pernambuco, Recife
It was a bizarre leadup to the final group stage match for a few reasons. Jurgen Klinsmann was going against his former assistant and team in Joachim Low and Germany. The United States only needed a close loss to advance to the knockout rounds.
To make the match even more complicated, it was played in near-monsoon conditions. The city of Recife had picked up nearly three inches of rain before kickoff and there were discussions about the possibility of postponing the fixture.
Eventually, the decision was made to go ahead with the match. With conditions poor, and Germany’s place in the next round already assured, it was not the highest quality match played in the tournament.
The United States was unwilling to come out and attack for fear of opening themselves up, and the Germans were content to hold possession and see the match out.
Eventually, the deadlock was broken in the 54th minute when Thomas Muller drove home a rebound off the gloves of Tim Howard from the edge of the 18-yard box. It was a remarkable strike through traffic that seemed to remind fans that Germany was playing in second, or third gear.
There was a late chance for the Americans, but in the end, the match finished 1-0 to Germany. With Portugal only able to defeat Ghana 2-1 the United States was able to finish second in the group edging past Portugal on goal difference.
Round of 16
United States vs Belgium (1-2 a.e.t.)
Date: 1 July 2014
Venue: Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova, Salvador
Attendance: 51, 227
90 minutes of football had been played, but the real action didn’t occur until extra time. Well, unless you were American goalkeeper Tim Howard. Even in regulation, the Belgians were all over the Americans, peppering the goal with shots, but they were up against a keeper who had one of the greatest performances of all-time.
Howard recorded a World Cup record 15 saves during the match while his performance was going viral on the internet. The hashtag, #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave was trending, and someone changed his employment on his Wikipedia page to say, “Secretary of Defense.” It was a sensational performance.
The Belgians got what they deserved early in stoppage time though. Kevin De Bruyne broke the deadlock in the 92nd minute before Howard’s Everton teammate, Romelu Lukaku doubled the Belgian lead.
Substitute Julian Green pulled one back for the Americans in the 106th minute with his first touch of the tournament, but it was too little too late. The Belgians advanced and the Americans went home.
On the surface, the United States won big at the World Cup in Brazil. The team went toe to toe with one of Europe’s elites in Portugal, and there’s no shame in a 1-0 loss to eventual champions Germany. (Remember what that squad did to Brazil in the semis?)
Klinsmann managed to guide his troops through the “Group of Death” and went out to an excellent Belgium squad. Not a bad run.
Beyond the results on the pitch, these Yanks did something greater than all the rest. They drew American eyeballs.
The 2-2 draw with Portugal was the most-watched soccer game in American history, drawing 25 million viewers. That outdrew the 2013 World Series and was level with the viewership of the NBA Finals. That is a level of attention the United States Men’s’ National Team had never earned before.
Driven by the American team, viewership for the entire tournament was up 50% from the 2010 Cup in South Africa.
American soccer is constantly fighting for attention in a crowded professional sports culture, so numbers like that were encouraging not just for US Soccer, but also the growth of Major League Soccer. If fans can get interested in soccer through the World Cup, then maybe they will go tune into an MLS match, or go see one in person if there’s a team nearby.
Despite advancing from the group stage and attracting the interest of Americans, there were some disappointments with this team that may not be obvious on the surface.
When Klinsmann came in, he promised to change the way the United States played, to give the country an identity. The Germans have efficiency, the Spanish have tiki-taka, the Brazilians have Joga Bonito, but the Americans lacked an identity, something they were known for.
Despite his best efforts, that didn’t change. Throughout the cycle, his teams always played best when they had done the thing they’d always done, work hard, and take their chances when they came. There was no expansive attacking play, even when Klinsmann brought in talent from the Bundesliga.
This was never more glaringly obvious than the knockout-round match against Belgium.
It took a Herculean effort from Tim Howard in goal to keep that game level through 90 minutes. The United States was on the ropes from the first minute and only put real challenges to the Belgian defense when they threw everything forward at the end of the match.
As it turns out, scrappy counter-attacking is the American style.
Klinsmann set out to give American soccer an identity. They got one, just not the identity he intended.
Unfortunately for Klinsmann, he didn’t get another shot at the World Cup with the United States. The German claims that he could have taken the United States to the semifinals had he been given the time to do so, but that’s a story for another day.