Soccer Weekly with Brandon Wolak: MERICA Advances to Round of 16; Sporting Back in Action

Brandon Wolak, KC SportsNation

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As the entire human population watches the World Cup, one thing is becoming obvious: the United States belongs on this greatest stage in sport. Soccer matters in this country.

In order to get to the knock out stages of the tournament, the United States needed to finish first or second in what many analysts considered the most challenging group: Ghana, Portugal, and Germany.

Defeating Ghana in the first match of group play was a revelation. When Clint Dempsey scored in the opening minute, one member of our watch party (a new fan to the sport) remarked, “Is soccer always this exciting?” It was hard for me to think of an immediate answer; this is the game I love after all. The best I could come up with—after settling down from all of the screaming and high-fiving from Dempsey’s mammoth goal—was a smile and, “It depends.”

As the first match continued to unfold, André Ayew leveled the score at 1-1 in the 82’. At that point, it looked like Ghana were in control and destined to take at least a point. In all reality, the momentum was completely in their favor. Then Graham Zusi delivered a beautiful corner ball to John Brooks for the game winner. The win against Ghana put the United States in position to escape the so-called “Group of Death.”

The second match against Portugal brought even more drama. This time it was Portugal striking first. Nani scored in the fifth minute, leaving the United States on frustrated and on the ropes. The United States leveled in the 64th minute as Jermaine Jones continued his excellent run of form with a crucial goal. After being on its heals for much of the match, the United States took control when Clint Dempsey notched his second goal of the tournament in the 81st minute.

Dempsey’s goal seemed to be the nail in the coffin. As I sat high up in the wings at the Power and Light District, sheer joy and chaos rang loud and proud. The chanting of “I believe that we will win” hurt my ears. Reality was setting in – the United States were going to advance, and the impending showdown with the much heralded German squad would be nothing more than a friendly tune-up for both sides. Even more impressive, Ghana had somehow managed to draw with Germany, meaning that the United States were in position to win the group of death.

At the 90-minute-mark, the referee held up the sign for injury time.  Five minutes. All the United States needed was five more minutes of cautious soccer. Five minutes. This wasn’t to be. As the fifth minute of injury time was literally seconds away from expiring, Michael Bradley misplayed a ball and the Portuguese were in business. Ronaldo streaked down the right side of the pitch and crossed a perfect ball to Varela who headed the ball past Tim Howard. After holding Ronaldo quiet for 94 minutes, he broke the collective heart of the nation. Never had a draw felt so much like a loss. Is soccer always this exciting?

On to the Germans.

The draw against Portugal turned the group on its head. Now there were numerous scenarios in which each team could either be advanced or eliminated. Germany and the United States had the clearest chances of advancing, while Portugal needed a minor miracle and pesky Ghana only needed to win (and overcome a minor goal differential obstacle) to sneak past the United States as the final team to advance from the group. Considering that Ghana had eliminated the United States from the previous two World Cups, it seemed only fitting that Ghana would somehow figure out a way to beat Portugal. Still, the United States could assure passage with a win or a draw. In order to minimize the potential for match fixing and gamesmanship, the Portugal versus Ghana match was played simultaneously with the Germany versus United States match.

For the third and final match of group play, I watched the match in Portland, Oregon (more on that later). It was clear from kickoff that the Germans were out for blood. There would be no “90 minute kick-around” that allowed both teams to advance. Despite owning the majority of possession and ample opportunity, the Germans were unable to find the back of the net in the first half. Even better, Portugal entered the half up 1-0 on Ghana. If things stayed like this, the United States was advancing. As the second half started, things got crazy again. Germany went on the board after Thomas Müller scored. Only moments later, Ghana drew even with Portugal 1-1. Ghana was playing like the better side and looked destined to crush the U.S. once again. Meanwhile, the United States were not doing themselves and favors as they struggled to possess, let alone put a ball on frame.

As both games neared the final ten minutes, uneasiness enveloped the supporters. Ghana would score another goal and the United States were done. It seemed inevitable. But then, Ronaldo—the breaker of so many hearts a few days prior— came to the rescue with a huge goal in the 80th minute. Portugal won 2-1 and the United States lost 1-0. With the loss, the United States did what few thought possible: they advanced to the knockout rounds of the World Cup. The United States will play upstart Belgium tomorrow (3 pm).

Soccer is always this exciting.

***

Besler and Zusi Watch

Sporting Kansas City’s very own Matt Besler and Graham Zusi have both played pivotal roles so far in group play. Matt Besler, in my opinion, has been the best defender for the U.S. by far. None of the goals have come from his side, and his challenges have been well-timed and useful. The downside for Sporting fans is that Besler will probably attract a great deal of international attention after the World Cup. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see him go to a mid-level BPL or Bundesliga side during their transfer period.

Graham Zusi’s play has been slightly less consistent than Besler’s. Obviously, Zusi’s two assists are major factors as to why the United States is advancing. The corner to Jones during the Ghana match was an amazing moment. Unfortunately, Zusi hasn’t found the same touch in subsequent games. The highest compliment that I can pay Zusi is that he seems to be around the big plays in the big moments. His assist to Dempsey in the Portugal match appeared to be the game-winner.

I am hoping that Zusi gets a look from an international side after the World Cup, but my gut is telling me that he will not have as many chances as Besler. The inconsistency might be enough to dissuade major European sides from taking a chance on an American midfield player.

***

Sporting Kansas City

Now that the World Cup is taking a little break, it is time to get back to some MLS action. As I mentioned earlier, I was in Portland to see the Boys in Blue take on the Portland Timbers in the match essentially marks the start of the second half of the season, and Sporting won thanks to sneaking by a cheap goal. There really isn’t too much to say other than that and Portland played awful. Portland was able to knock Sporting out of the US Open Cup in a game at Sporting Park this past Tuesday.

One quick aside: if you, dear reader, ever get the chance to do a “Roaddron” (Cauldron roadtrip) to Portland, I highly recommend it. Great people, wonderful scenery, ample microbreweries, and supremely beautiful weather. The city also embraces soccer similarly to Kansas City, which really makes me happy as well.

Follow the live Tweets for all SKC and USMNT games with @Baron_von_KC.

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