The USA Is Looking Good to Advance to the Second Round, but There Are Big Problems Ahead

Slate's soccer blog.
June 17 2014 12:07 AM

The USA Is Looking Good to Advance to the Second Round, but There Are Big Problems Ahead

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It was an amazing night, except for that one thing ...

Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

You don’t have to be a number cruncher of Nate Silver’s caliber to know that Monday was a good day for the United States national team. After being eliminated by Ghana at the last two World Cups, the U.S. defeated their biggest bogeymen 2–1 in thrilling fashion. The win came just hours after Portugal was demolished 4–0 by a typically ruthless German squad.

On account of those two results, FiveThirtyEight’s latest statistical projections give the Americans a great shot to advance to the knockout round. Earlier Monday, Silver’s model gave the team a 36.9 percent chance of moving to the second round. Now, the FiveThirtyEight model has completely reversed its projection, giving the USA just a 36.9 percent chance of getting eliminated prior to the round of 16. The reversal of fortune came at expense of Portugal, who is now at the bottom of the group on goal difference and face a 73 percent chance of elimination, and Ghana, which has an 87.6 percent chance of making an early departure.

A wild day at the World Cup, though, shows the problem with applying Silver’s statistical knowhow to individual soccer matches. Sports, on a game-by-game basis at least, are not nearly as predictable as elections. Who would have guessed, for example, that the U.S. would score one of the fastest goals in World Cup history, with Dempsey marking in the first minute. Or that starting striker Jozy Altidore would go down with a hamstring injury that could keep him out of the rest of the tournament. Finally, who could have predicted that Portugal would suffer their worst-ever defeat at the World Cup? And lose two of their starters to injury? And that Portugal’s star center-back Pepe would head-butt a German player and be sent off in disgrace? Actually, that one was kind of predictable

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Pepe’s red card against Germany means that he will be suspended for the next game against the U.S., improving the American odds even further. Because of the margin of Portugal’s defeat Monday and the importance of goal difference as a tiebreaker, a draw with Cristiano Ronaldo’s team would likely be enough to take the U.S. through to the next round unless something absolutely disastrous happened against Germany in the last game of the group stage.

Despite how Portugal looked Monday, it won’t be easy to get such a result. The Americans had their own issues against Ghana, looking sapped after Altidore went down injured. The U.S. conceded a long-overdue equalizer in the 82nd minute on a lovely strike from André Ayew off of an even lovelier backheel pass from Asamoah Gyan. They were lucky to score the winner four minutes later when 21-year-old substitute defender John Brooks, playing in his first nonfriendly game for the United States, headed home the winner and earned his place among the greats.

The U.S. got the result, and that’s what matters, but it looks like the national team’s defensive and possession woes from pretournament friendlies have returned. The team was all too dependent on Ghana’s poor finishing and Tim Howard’s marvelous goalkeeping. From the moment Altidore was taken off of the pitch, Ghana dominated the game. The Black Stars had 59 percent possession to 41 percent, 21 shots to eight, 13 deliveries into the penalty area to six, and 65 dangerous attacks to 22. The last 15 minutes were more even, and the U.S. did come up big when it counted.

But that won’t be enough against even a weakened Portugal. If Altidore misses the next two games, Jürgen Klinsmann might even regret his decision to leave Landon Donovan home. The likeliest replacements for Altidore are Chris Wondolowski, Aron Jóhannsson, and Julian Green, none of whom will scare any of the United States’ upcoming opponents. The Icelandic-American Jóhannsson disappeared for long stretches of the game against Ghana—according to one analysis, the team only had two touches within 20 yards of Ghana’s goal after Jóhannsson came on. Green—who just turned 19 and is completely untested—is mainly at this World Cup for experience and maybe as part of a deal to get him to play for the United States over his native Germany. Wondolowski is a classic goal poacher and would make more sense as a late substitute than a starter.

The U.S. bench is so thin in the attack that it’s hard to say what Klinsmann should do. Perhaps the best of a bunch of not-so-great options is to play Dempsey as a lone striker and replace Altidore with midfielder Graham Zusi, leaving the likes of Jóhannsson and Wondolowski to come off the bench. (Landon Donovan, we miss you!) But after a night like Monday, maybe it’s too soon to start second-guessing the German coach. Instead, let’s continue to revel in one of the most thrilling nights in U.S. soccer history. The second-guessing can wait a few more hours.

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

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