Now starts the real World Cup drama for the United States and the other 15 teams that reached the knockout stage.
No more complicated math equations to figure out how to survive a group. It’s quite simple from here on out: Win, you stay. Lose, you go home.
If the Americans want to keep the party going here and back in the States, they will have to beat a Belgium team on Tuesday that many experts picked as a sleeper to go deep into the tournament. Although their names may not be as familiar as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the casual fan in the United States, nine of the 11 players in the Belgian starting lineup make a living at European giant clubs such as Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Manchester City and Bayern Munich.
The Red Devils beat the U.S. team 4-2 at a friendly in Cleveland in May 2013, went undefeated through World Cup qualifying with eight wins and two ties, and finished atop Group H with victories over Algeria (2-1), Russia (1-0) and South Korea (1-0)
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“They’re a top team. Everyone around Europe will tell you how good they are,” said American goalkeeper Tim Howard, who plays at Everton and faces many Belgian players in the English Premier League. “They’ve got so many good players, young players, strong, fast, good on the ball. I actually think because of that we match up well with them, but we’ll see.”
The U.S. team got back to work Friday morning at its Sao Paulo training camp, and coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Thursday’s 1-0 loss to Germany is already ancient history.
“It’s a huge achievement by the team to get out of the ‘Group of Death’ and to move on, but, at the same time, we already communicated to the team, this is all gone now,’’ Klinsmann said. “This is all done. Be proud of it for a second, but don’t be content. This is now the key going into the knockout stage. It is about understanding the dynamics of knockout games. That means do or die.
“Our job from a coaching perspective is to prepare the team that they understand the dimension of knockout games. It’s just a completely different topic than preparing for a group stage where you always count the points.’’
Forward Jozy Altidore, who hasn’t played since straining his left hamstring early in the opening win over Ghana, has been jogging for the past three days and Klinsmann said he is “very optimistic’’ Altidore will be healthy enough to contribute in the match against Belgium in Salvador on Tuesday.
“Every day is a big step forward with Jozy,’’ he said. “It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.”
Klinsmann and his staff have challenged the players to dig deeper against Belgium, to hold the ball longer than they did in the group stage, the push the attack more aggressively and not hang back so far.
“I believe that in our team so far, nobody can claim that he reached his 100 percent yet,’’ Klinsmann said. “This is a very important message to the players. Now this is what you worked for so long and so hard. Take it one game at a time with total focus just to this one game, and after that game is done to the next game and make it happen. Is it doable? Absolutely. They got out of this group, now anything is doable. But you need to raise the bar.’’
The players say they are not satisfied yet. They want to go farther than they did in 2010, when they lost to Ghana in the second round. And they want to prove wrong the skeptics who predicted the Americans would be heading home by now.
“Before this tournament started, no one was talking that America can come to the next round. It was always Portugal and Germany,’’ midfielder Jermaine Jones said. “We showed people that we have a good team and we have a good atmosphere in the group. Everything that the coach did before the tournament, who he sent home and who he took for the team, I think was a good decision. Now, we face a knockout game, and we have to see it like a final.”
Clint Dempsey said: “Everything’s fresh again. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in the group stages, it’s what you’re going to do on that day. There’s more pressure because you either stay or you go home. We fell a little short four years ago. We want to stay longer this time.’’