Although it may not be the American way, the U.S. national team may want to play it safe against FIFA's second-ranked team in order to advance to the round of 16.
SAO PAULO – It should be a nice bus, one of those beauties with the reclining chairs, TV monitors at every seat, a bathroom in the back and, who knows, maybe even a wet bar somewhere. This is the World Cup. The bus one parks should not be the sort used to ferry the kids to band camp.
In soccer, this is what it is called when a team goes entirely on the defensive: parking the bus.PHOTOS: USA vs. Portugal | U.S. fan reactions | Beautiful people in Brazil
(In Uruguay, it’s called “Luis bit someone again," but that’s another story).
This is not a common tactic for American teams, certainly not for THE American team, the United States national team. It doesn’t happen often in Major League Soccer but only this past season London club Chelsea earned significant results in the UEFA Champions League and the Premier League by aligning itself almost entirely in front of the goal it was protecting, with a single striker available to pounce on any opponent's mistake.
It is precisely what the United States must do Thursday afternoon when facing Germany in the northern coastal town of Recife in their final Group G game. Back up that luxury bus we described, throw it in park, let the Germans pound soccer balls off the windows and side panels. The fewer goals there are in this game, the better it is for everyone concerned.
With three points awarded in the standings for a victory and one for a draw, Germany has four points after two games, and so do the Americans. Germany is ahead of the U.S. based on a superior goal differential. If the two draw in Recife, both automatically advance to the World Cup knockout stage.
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“We are not made for going into a game to end with a tie,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann insisted. “That’s just not in our DNA, and it’s not even in the DNA of the German side, so they are both teams that want to get the results. Both teams want to win the group.
“You’ll see that yourselves, but we are definitely going in there with the approach that we want to push it and we want to go for gold and we want to get three points, and this is really what we are driving for.”
I got myself in trouble earlier in the week for asking what motivated Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal to align his team with a five-man back line in the Group B finale against Chile. He took it as an affront to his very manhood; I just wanted to understand what made it smart.
It was amusing later to discover that Dirk Kuyt, long a 4-3-3 winger or lone striker, told reporters in the mixed zone at Arena Corinthians he’d gotten a kick out of playing as a left back against Chile for one of the only times in his long career. “I enjoyed it,” he said, according to the AP. “I never played in this position, but the coach told me a couple weeks ago that it could be a possibility during the tournament.”
Through his bluster, van Gaal eventually revealed that however much he resented his tactics being described as assuming “a defensive posture,” it was the smart way to play this particular game with this particular team.
And so it is with Klinsmann against Germany. It’s not as though the U.S. has been completely opposed to playing defense first – or, more to the point, defense only. When the World Cup qualifying schedule called for a trip to Azteca Stadium in March 2013, the Americans allowed Mexico 19 shots to their one, 15 corner kicks to their own two and a 58-42 possession advantage. The 0-0 draw was one of the best results the U.S. team has gained in recent years, given that it had only gained one draw in six prior qualifying games at Azteca.
This is why it is tempting to believe Klinsmann is trying a little too hard to convince us the Americans will be daring against Germany. And there’s every reason to believe the Germans will be content not to push the issue, either.
Unlike Chile, which already had advanced to the World Cup round of 16 and had nothing to lose by attacking hard against the Netherlands’ firm resistance, the only way the Germans have any chance to be eliminated is with a loss to the U.S. A win or a draw gets them everything. So there’s no sense in risking an overly aggressive approach that would leave them vulnerable to a counterattack that might send them home from the Cup early.
Although Klinsmann claims this sort of soccer is not in the German makeup, it is worth noting that the most famous “biscotto” – an Italian term for a match in which a mutually beneficial result develops naturally because of that mutual interest or, more nefariously, by a prearrangement – came in the 1982 World Cup and involved West Germany and Austria. A quirk in the standings meant that both teams would advance as the result of a 1-0 German win, and all other results would eliminate both. So after Germany scored 10 minutes in, the teams essentially stopped competing.
That led to FIFA playing all final group-stage World Cup matches simultaneously, which is why Portugal and Ghana will kick off at noon ET, same as the U.S. and Germany. It’s impossible to see the Americans and Germans making a farce of it, but also understandable if neither is all that motivated to score.
“Who would have thought that after the two games, we were right there with four points, we need one more point and we are through?” Klinsmann said. “So we will take it that way very positively.”
And the positive thing to do now is to take what soccer people call a “negative” approach to the game. Park the bus, so the ride can continue.