So here we are, a mere hours before the biggest opportunity for the USA to prove itself in its history - advance out of the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, against the vaunted Germans.
Now, a little background. The US has exceeded expectations in both matches and moved the needle - advanced the football, so to speak - beyond what most pundits predicted back in December. A win over Ghana gave the team the belief that the ghosts of World Cups past were gone, and the way the team played against Portugal for wide stretches was fantastic.
They have every reason to be confident, to have played so well in the Group of Death.
But now, it is time for the cold water to the face.
The Germans are what stands between the US and advancement. Technically, the Germans and once again, the Ghanians. What? We already beat them? True that, but we didn't beat Portugal and that leaves a crack of opportunity open for them to slip through at our (or, possibly Germany's) expense.
How would that happen? Well, first, the US would need to lose to Germany. More later on that. But second, Ghana would need to win, and not necessarily win big. A simple 2-1 or 2-0 win for the Africans combined with any loss for the Americans and the US is out.
Ghana - again....
Considering that no team has played in Manaus and its heat and gone on to even tie in their next game, that does not bode well for Portugal or the US. In fact, the Iberians were gassed in the US game, so playing on a day's less rest, after playing in the jungle, already beat up - it isn't going to get better, now is it? Add in the fact that Ghana feel hard-done by from their first match against the US, and a little disappointed to have not held onto the win against Germany, and you have the recipe for a very confident Ghana and a big win.
Sports Happens, so I don't think we can just dismiss a tie in that game as impossible, but it sure doesn't seem likely.I see Ghana winning 2-0 or 3-1, depending on how much of a fight Portugal brings - but it will be the proverbial knife to a gunfight. They just don't have the right weapons. Or more accurately, they don't have any bullets left in their guns.
Some have noticed the issues in the Ghana camp relative to the money. Make no mistake, losing Boateng is a big hit. He made a big difference in the US-Ghana match, and played well in the game he started against Germany. I think that it will become a rallying cry - a reason to come together. They will it aside and if anything, it will be motivation. Surely, no player will want to be accused of not playing his best for Country because of money.
Germany - again...
So let's turn out heads to the USA-Germany match. With a win or tie, the US is through. Win and they take the group, tie and they come in second. (Technically, they can advance even if they lose if Ghana and Portugal tie, or if Portugal wins with a small margin of success - which is possible, but not likely.)
For Germany, a tie and they win the group. A win and they obviously take the group. And they are one of the World Powers. They might rest some - or a number - of players, but they certainly won't be playing it safe on the field. Any chance of that went out the window in 1982.
Do not expect anything other than a strong game from Germany. No, if the US is to have success today, they will have to earn it.
But is all in our hands
But that is the beautiful thing - the US has shown that they clearly have the ability to do just that. It is all right in front of them, and this team has more often than not taken what they want from the game.
Even in my recent look at players and tactics, I couldn't find a real weak spot to inject fresh players into the lineup. Yes, I worry about Zusi, Bedoya, Bradley, Beasley and Besler a bit, but only becasue I am looking for potential issues, not because there are real concerns.
You have to look at the way this team responded to the first Portugal goal and feel confident that barring a goal with no time to respond, they will answer anything Germany throws at them.
But is that realistic? The talent on the US is there, but even though Portugal has the potential to be the No. 4 team in the world, they clearly aren't that now. And while Germany did end up getting tied by Ghana - and looked a bit shaken at times in the process - I think you have to chalk that up to a touch of overconfidence that apparently the Germans are historically prone to in Game Two of a World Cup.
Now, advancement is on the line, as is pride, and the Germans certainly have enough of that. I don't mean that in a negative way, but the kind of confidence that is necessary to perform at this level of athletic competition. They have zero interest in their former manager taking a lesser side and beating them, let alone the fact that a loss might in fact open them up to not winning the group or even not advancing.
No, Germany will not lie down. In fact, they likely will rest some key players and start players who are just as talented, but fresh, which brings its own problems against a tired US side.
Make no mistake, there is real, tangible danger here. If you were to ask me to put odds on it, I would put it at 50/50 that the US advances as I think it likely that both Ghana and Germany win. On the other hand, Sports Happens, and there is real reason to think that one or both games will end up tied, which puts the US through.
I think it more likely that the US earns the tie rather than Portugal, but maybe the combination of Christiano Ronaldo not wanting to go out without a goal and the Ghanian issues with their players conspire to rob either team of three points.
But really, it is all in the US players' hands. If the US really has progressed to the point where we deserve to advance out of the Group of Death, then they will find a way to get the result they need. What is exciting is we have clearly seen the panache of this group of American players, the spirit, is finally combined with some real skill, some real talent, some real tactical acumen, in a combination that is better than just being a possible group to advance.
There are elements of that fantastic 2002 team in this group - flexibility, adaptability, a veteran's focus and commitment, a rookie's athleticism and energy, all stuffed into this thing that has become American football: an unquenchable hunger to win, an unwavering desire to succeed. So go forth, Captain America and Co., and get the result you need today from Germany.