RECIFE, Brazil -- The emotional ups and downs the U.S. went through in surviving Group G required a year's supply of Dramamine.
The Americans withstood withering pressure to beat Ghana 2-1, played brilliantly before coughing up a late equalizer against Portugal and finally concluded group play with a 1-0 defeat to Germany. Omar Gonzalez summed up the experience perfectly when he said, "Last game's draw felt like a loss, and today's loss felt like a win. It's pretty weird."
Taking the big picture view, the Americans had every reason to feel joyful. The U.S. had emerged from arguably one of the two toughest groups in the tournament, a magnificent achievement that many observers thought was beyond this side. The questions that hung over the backline were largely answered in the affirmative, including Thursday's match. Players such as Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Matt Besler and, in particular, Jermaine Jones have had magnificent tournaments.
"The way that we battled, we did create a few chances, the way we defended, it's great," Besler said. "We're moving on."
But amid the hugs between players and applause for the traveling supporters, there were reasons for sober reflection, as well. The U.S. had survived the group stage, despite being badly outplayed in two of the three matches. On the one hand, that's a testament to the team's spirit and mentality. On the other, the Americans' inability to keep possession has to be a huge concern for manager Jurgen Klinsmann and the players.
On Thursday, Germany grabbed control early, and while the U.S. came into the match to a degree, the Nationalmannschaft never really let it go. Granted, Germany is as talented a team as there is in the tournament and, as Besler noted, did an excellent job of putting numbers to the ball when it lost possession. Germany also had an extra day's rest, and didn't have to play in the energy-sapping heat and humidity of Manaus like the U.S. did.
But the World Cup is a tournament that refuses to take notice of such inequities. The games go on, making it even more imperative that the U.S. take better care of the ball. Klinsmann was well aware of his team's deficiencies on the rain-soaked field of the Arena Pernambuco, and he said it was difficult to tell how much fatigue played a factor.
"We have to keep the ball longer, we have to be a bit calmer under pressure, just move the ball around," he said at his post-match press conference. "Every time we had that kind of phase where we connected four, five, six passes and then shifted to the other side, we looked really good. But mostly it wasn't as often as I wanted to see that ... It's definitely something we have to improve."
- USA vs. Belgium, Tuesday, July 1, ESPN, 4 p.m. ET
Doing that is easy to talk about, but difficult to put into practice. The players are who they are. It's not as though they can be transformed into Andrea Pirlo clones in the five days until it plays Group H-winner Belgium.
There are some things that can be tweaked, however. Both Klinsmann and midfielder Graham Zusi mentioned that the U.S. showed Germany too much respect in the early going. Zusi even called it "the German effect," where the talent of the Nationalmannschaft basically Jedi-mind-tricked the U.S. into taking up a defensive posture. It took some surging runs from Jones and DaMarcus Beasley to snap the U.S. out of its trance. Germany still controlled things, but the Americans at least began to generate some offense.
U.S. INTO THE ROUND OF 16
- Doug McIntyre: Battered, bruised, through
- Jeff Carlisle: U.S. grades
- Chris Jones: U.S. ride their luck
- Klinsmann: "Now we really get started"
- Will the perception of U.S. soccer change?
- Tactics Board: Organized U.S. restrict Germany
- Social media: Reaction to U.S. progress
It's a scenario the U.S. will need to avoid in Salvador on July 1 against Belgium, another talented team with gifted players. For Zusi, there's a simple change the U.S. can make.
"In the first five minutes of the game, impose yourself," Zusi said. "Step on their toes a little bit and get in their face. I think [today] once we realized that we could play, you saw a turnaround. So, we know that we can now. It's just a matter of doing it early on."
That is what the U.S. did against Portugal, and they'll need to do the same in the next match, though with intelligence, so as not to leave themselves too exposed.
The good news is that the U.S. will now have five days to prepare for its next game. No doubt it could use the time, given how taxing the group stage was, and that might help the U.S. find the range on its passes a bit more.
"It was a grind for sure," Besler said. "All three games were tough physically. There was a lot of ups and downs emotionally. But that's what it's about. I think all three games took a little bit of a toll on everybody. The great thing is that we're going through, and then we can find that extra level now that we're going into the knockout rounds."
If that level includes more possession, then the U.S. will have a chance.