Judgment day for U.S. at World Cup
RIO DE JANEIRO -- How the hours up to this biblically rain-soaked Teutonic tilt have dragged. Though I have tried to kill them by savoring the two goals Ghana netted against a curiously heavy-legged Germany, memorizing the lyrics to Clint Dempsey's instant hip-hop classic "It's Poppin," and feasting on Sylvester Stallone's goalkeeping performance in "Victory," I still cannot shake the tingling electric uncertainty I feel.
Can the U.S. gain the result they need to emerge from the grueling gauntlet of Group G and make today their "Miracle on Ice on Grass"? In the words of the great American Outlaws, "I believe that we will win, draw, or lose but advance anyway on goal difference."
The answer to that question could not be more critical. Simply put, the clash against Germany is the most important World Cup game the United States has ever played. Yes, the U.S. has gone deeper in this World Cup -- 2002's valiant quarterfinal loss to Germany will never be forgotten -- yet the 2014 campaign takes place just as the sporting tectonic plates beneath the American sporting landscape have finally shifted. The nation is tuning in. Sick days will be called in. Pubs and parks packed. Over 20,000 American fans will bellow their boys forward in Recife. The U.S. unabashedly loves soccer and adores its national team. Failure today would eviscerate the giddy passion that has welled up behind this squad faster than helium from a punctured balloon.
The stakes are even higher for Jurgen Klinsmann. If the U.S. team emerge from this group -- Ghana! Portugal! and (most Tywin-Tyrion Lannister of all) Germany! -- he will become an all-time American sporting hero, a man who took bold risks and delivered. If the U.S. is eliminated, the gutsy Ghana display will be remembered as front-loaded false hope on the road to the damp squib of crushing failure.
I have spent a large part of this year witnessing Klinsmann prepare his team for this task while making the behind-the-scenes documentary "Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil." I can tell you one thing: This is a man who wants to beat Germany even more than Brad Pitt in "Inglourious Basterds."
The first time I filmed Klinsmann post-World Cup draw was on the first day of January camp in Santa Monica, California. Still processing the trifecta of cruel challenges devised by the gods of the World Cup draw -- brutal opponents, a soul-grinding travel schedule and unforgiving climates ranging from "hot" and "swampy hot" to "searing" -- the coach still appeared to be reeling as he bounded onto the set, blowing out his cheeks, shaking his head and quipping, "Well, we are not knocked out of the World Cup just yet ..."
Yet once he had assembled his squad and begun the grinding process of World Cup preparation, Klinsmann morphed into a stern taskmaster on the practice field and an eternal well of optimism off it. In March, he was grilled by the German press in Frankfurt -- a German football hero, talking German to the German media, while wearing the crest of the U.S. team on his polo shirt, and broaching the prospect of today's game in which he will lead the Americans out against his home nation. "We are going to get out of this group," he told them calmly with a thin smile before adding, "which means one of the big teams will not ... and it won't be Germany."
I last spoke to Klinsmann in Jacksonville, three days before the squad headed for Brazil. We stood by a fire escape in the team hotel and talked about whether the young, inexperienced squad he had selected could really escape like David Blaine from Group G. "Two things will determine that," he admitted. "Our ability to take the field with confidence, believing we can compete with Portugal and Germany and win as opposed to the past when we felt doomed before the final whistle, and our ability to play 90 minutes with complete focus without switching off."
The U.S. have thus far demonstrated they have the ability to do the former, channeling defiant collective tenacity to tilt Ghana, then unfurling ambitious, inventive, assertive football in the draw with Portugal. Yet as the psychic wound that was Silvestre Varela's 95th-minute goal attests, switching off remains a self-destructive reality.
As does the challenge of rebounding from the physical and mental battering the team experienced in Manaus. Teams leaving the Amazon jungle at this World Cup are 0-4 in their next game. Roberto Martinez assured me the United States are the fittest team he has seen in Brazil, yet can a young team with little tournament experience regain its focus and concentrate on everything they have achieved rather than what was cruelly lost?
I believe they can. If I had to describe the core value of this 2014 squad, I would use the words the unfairly maligned Michael Bradley said to me in Stanford. "This is the World Cup of suffering ... and we want to be the team that can suffer the most."
I would also offer up the memory of my farewell to Klinsmann in Jacksonville. His last words to me were "I would love to beat Germany," dragging out the word "love" with relish, and beaming to tip that few in America want that more. He then leaped up and punched the air above his head, and for that moment, we were both no longer in Florida, but pitchside in Recife at the final whistle. Then he turned quickly and, without another word, pushed open the fire escape and was gone.