John McGrath

John McGrath: History means nothing as US enters World Cup knockout phase

Sometimes in sports – specifically, during the World Cup’s group stage – it’s not whether you win or lose, but how you perceive the game.

Sunday, the U.S. national team settled for a draw against Portugal in a match the Americans appeared poised to win before allowing the equalizer with only seconds remaining on a clock they couldn’t see. The final score was 2-2, but it felt like a defeat.

Thursday morning provided a different scenario. The U.S. was clearly outclassed by Germany, but by preventing Die Mannschaft from winning by a margin more persuasive than 1-0, the defeat felt like a draw. Actually, better than a draw, because 850 miles away, Portugal beat Ghana, 2-1, an outcome that allowed the Americans to advance on the basis of goal differential while rendering both Ghana and Portugal as ultimate losers, even though the Portuguese won.

It sounds more confusing than a tournament needs to be, but then, I’m not sure I’d want to be the Portugal News sportswriter assigned to break down, say, the tiebreaker system for the NFL playoffs. In any case, the group stage is over, and now the World Cup’s 16 remaining teams participate in a format similar to the NCAA basketball tournament.

It’s called the knockout round, and if that sounds more combative than the NCAA’s Sweet 16 round, it’s because the consequences are more urgent.

The victors advance and the vanquished go home to live, depending on the amount of national pride that’s been lost, not so happily ever after.

An exception is here in the Land of the Free, Home of the Brave and Guardian of Modest World Cup Credentials. Any success beyond the group stage will be considered as berries are on ice cream.

“This is a huge step,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters after his team’s Thursday-morning defeat translated into a victory. “We can’t wait until the round of 16. Everybody said we had no chance.”

Among those insisting the U.S. had no chance was, as I recall, the German-born coach, who has shifted his posture from “let’s be realistic” to “anything can happen.”

Give Klinsmann this: While in Brazil, he managed to take a summer-school course in American history, and he needed only two weeks to ace it.

As for U.S. history as it pertains to the World Cup, not much is there. The Americans’ best showing was a third-place finish in 1930, the inaugural tournament, when FIFA limited the field to 16 teams.

The U.S. didn’t return to the knockout round until 1994, and it didn’t advance in the knockout round until 2002, when a 2-0 defeat of Mexico sent the Americans into the quarterfinals, but no further.

When a national soccer program goes 54 years between knockout round appearances, earning two of them in consecutive World Cups is a big deal. That was accomplished by the Americans, whose escape from the hyperbolic chamber known as the “Group of Death” got them a Tuesday match against Belgium.

About Belgium: It’s a young, talented team (No. 11) rated above the U.S. (No. 13) in the most recent world rankings. Belgium wasn’t especially tested against the likes of Algeria, Russia and South Korea – the “Group of Dearth” – so overconfidence could be a factor.

A friendly played 13 months ago in Cleveland found Belgium beating the U.S., 4-2, which is somewhat more relevant than the fact the U.S. beat Belgium twice in the 1930 World Cup.

But nothing is relevant in the knockout round, aside from winning and advancing.

“Now we really get started,” Klinsmann said. “Once the group is done, another tournament actually starts because the knockout stage is a completely different ballgame.”

Completely different in a World Cup sense, perhaps, but familiar to college basketball fans whose pulses race once the field is trimmed to 16.

From now on, winning will feel like winning, losing will feel like losing, and goal differentials and draws won’t be part of the discussion.

Here’s hoping the U.S. team looks at its next opponent dispassionately: a worthy foe due respect, of course, but just another obstacle on a knockout-round calendar littered with them.

The calendar doesn’t the penalize the Americans for previous failures to assert themselves as a World Cup power, and it doesn’t reward them for making soccer a mainstream conversation topic among U.S. sports fans.

The calendar is blunt and dictatorial, and owns the bottom line for an American soccer program determined to change its international reputation in increments.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium.

Related stories from Tacoma News Tribune