They have spent most of this World Cup tucked away in their U.S. team cocoon, traveling nearly 9,000 miles on buses and chartered planes between pricey hotels, their Sao Paulo training grounds and far-flung stadiums across this vast country.
But U.S. players, coaches and officials are in touch enough to know of the growing buzz surrounding the team back home, the bars and restaurants packed for watch parties, the car horns honking after U.S. goals, the front-page coverage. They are well aware their game against Portugal drew a larger TV audience (24.7 million) than the average audience for the games of the 2014 NBA Finals (15.5) and 2013 World Series (14.9).
And they know a whole lot of Americans will be taking an extended lunch hour and playing hooky on Thursday to watch the United States play Germany in a crucial final group stage match.
A win — or even a tie — against Germany would secure a spot in the Round of 16 and ramp up the American party to an unprecedented star-spangled frenzy. A loss, combined with a Ghana victory over Portugal, could boot the U.S. team from the tournament and cloud all the progress the team has made.
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“It’s just like a missed putt, missed jump shot — this is razor-thin stuff,” Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer president, said Wednesday. “The whole narrative could be in a different place, but it’s always like that. So far, it’s been like 10 consecutive nights of Landon’s goal [when Landon Donovan scored a thrilling game winner against Algeria in the last World Cup]. We’d like more.
“It’s a huge game. … To keep that level of interest for another four, five, six days and hopefully more days would be great for the sport. Will that trend line be a little higher and steeper if we get through [Thursday night]? Yes.”
Said midfielder Kyle Beckerman: “Our country is in a soccer fever. People are glued to the TVs when we play. We want to keep that going.”
It won’t be easy. The U.S. team faces a German team that features international stars Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Sami Khedira (Real Madrid) and the Bayern Munich trio of Philipp Lahm, Mario Gotze and Thomas Muller. Among the players coming off the bench is Miroslav Klose, whose 15 World Cup goals are tied with Ronaldo for most ever.
Germany has always been known for its physicality, organization and defense. Now, under coach Joachim Loew, the team also plays attacking, high-octane soccer. Germany led Europe with 36 goals in World Cup qualifying and is among the favorites to win this World Cup.
Of all the great teams in World Cup history, few, if any, have been as consistently good as Germany. Consider that over the past 40 years, Germany won the World Cup in 1974 and 1990; reached the final in 1982, 1986 and 2002; reached the semis in 2006 and 2010; and the quarters in 1994 and 1998.
Nobody knows that better than U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the star of the 1990 German World Cup championship team and coach of the German team in the 2006 World Cup. He is very close friends with Loew, whom he mentored.
“I have a lot of admiration for what Jogy’s done with the team over eight years,” Klinsmann said. “They play a very, very confident, high-paced football, wonderful style, technique, and he has given young players many chances through the system. It’s just fun to watch. I’m looking at it from the outside, and I’m proud of what he has done and the whole team has done. They’re a team capable of going all the way to the end.”
That said, the U.S. coach fully believes his team could pull off the upset. He has instructed his players not to be afraid, to seize the moment and play with the intensity they had against Ghana and Portugal.
“We are not underdogs, by any means, and we are very capable of beating Germany,” he said. “It’s possible. It’s doable. As we’ve seen this World Cup, it’s full of surprises. We want to be one of those surprises. We’ve done a good job, but we’re not done yet. We want to get that one or three points and move on.”
Players and coaches from both sides dismissed any notion that they would play for a draw, even though both teams would advance with that result.
“That is not in our DNA,” Klinsmann said.
Said Ozil: “I believe that, as a player, we do not play for a draw. We play 90 minutes to score. Our purpose is to do our utmost to win, and that is what we will do. We want to finish [on] top of the group.”
For Klinsmann — and the five German-American players on the U.S. team — Thursday’s game will have extra meaning. Klinsmann said his family members in Germany and the United States are “a little bit split.”
And facing Loew, his former assistant, will be special, too.
“We are very close friends,” Klinsmann said. “We think alike, come from same region south of Germany, and have always stayed in contact. Going into this World Cup, obviously, Jogy’s doing his job, I’m doing mine. We leave phone calls and text messages away for a couple of days. Once the World Cup is over, three weeks from now, we’ll be back on the phone talking about it, seeing the families, visiting each other.”
But for 90 minutes Thursday, it’s USA vs. Germany, with so much at stake. “It’s massive,” Klinsmann said. “There’s no other word for this game.”