BY Art Thiel 08:27PM 06/26/2014

Thiel: In ‘Group of Death,’ U.S. loses, gets life

The U.S. national team fell up to the knockout round, continuing a high-wire run in a tourney that is offering many sensory delights.

DeAndre Yedlin of the Seattle Sounders: Local boy makes good. / Wiki Commons

Contributing to the many fascinating feats at the World Cup in Brazil, the United States national team Thursday managed to fall up. In a monsoon, no less.

The contravention of the laws of physics came at the expense of Portugal and Ghana, the members of the s0-called “Group of Death” that fell down. How unoriginal.

The U.S. lost to Germany 1-0, but both teams elevated to the knock-out round next week by virtue of better records in the three games of group play. For those Americans who see advancement via defeat as a peculiar way to find a champion, please consider the method by which the U.S. for decades has decided its national college football champion —  the voted opinions of sportswriters who probably are better qualified to judge a swimsuit pageant. And would prefer to do so.

Because the U.S. and Germany knew bef0re the match that a mere draw — as well as a close U.S. loss — would advance both, the teams played with an industrial-strength pucker that sapped the game of any passion and daring. The only real theater was was whether the rain would wash the teams, players and stadium into the Atlantic Ocean.

Despite acute caution by the U.S., Germany’s 24-year-old star, Thomas Muller, in the 55th minute punched in from 18 yards a rebound score off the hands of American goalie Tim Howard. The shot was authoritative, as was the Germans’ control of the ball for 64 percent of the game. Had the stakes been higher, so would have been the margin of victory.

Nevertheless, the Americans, second in Group G, have defied the skeptics and moved on to the round of 16, where the Yanks meet Belgium, winners of Group H, at 1 p.m. Tuesday. For the first time, the U.S. has advanced to the knockout round in consecutive Cups, another sign that Yank progress in the world’s game is moving ahead.

Speaking of progress, judging by the Cup’s TV ratings, soccer has more than a beachhead in the battle for hearts and minds in the sporting amusements.

The U.S.-Portugal game Sunday viewed on cable nets ESPN and Univision was seen by 24.7 million, close to the BCS college football “championship” audience of 26.4 million, and well outpacing the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, Masters golf and either NHL or NBA championships. Only the NFL and the Olympics were bigger TV draws this year.

Owing to a 9 a.m. start on a workday, Thursday’s rating won’t do nearly as well. And the big Portugal number is a bit deceiving, since it benefits by two factors that are candy to American viewers — national participation, and spectacle, neither of which addresses the embrace of the sport for itself.

Still, the show has been compelling. Soccer-mad Brazil, despite its dreadful over-spend on the tourney and its roaring economic problems, is providing a pulsing backdrop, and ESPN’s coverage, anchored by the knowledge and smoothness of Bob Ley, is doing a splendid job of showcasing and explaining.

Beyond spectacle and U.S. participation, as well as the Cup tradition of controversial, jaw-dropping goofiness — the bite by Uruguay’s Luis Suarez will keep late-night comedians dealing for months — several factors are bumping up the attractiveness of this event for casual U.S. fans.

For a nation that abhors nil-nil, the 32 World Cup teams averaged almost three goals a game in the now-concluded group play. With 16 games left, the 136 scores were one short of all games in the 2010 Cup.

Underdogs abound: The presence of little guys Switzerland, Greece, Chile and Costa Rica in the round of 16 evokes the charm of the NCAA hoops tourney and its various Butlers, Gonzagas and Florida Gulf Coasts, while defending champion Spain, along with traditional powers Italy, England and Portugal are headed home to Europe today. (Tourney bracket here)

The level of play by individuals and teams has to delight any newbie, none more dramatic than the local-angle play by Sounders’ Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain who has gone household with his name, thanks to two vital goals. His Seattle teammate, 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin, whose surprise inclusion on the 23-man roster was thought to be mere training wheels for 2018, has delighted by getting in as a reserve the past two games and drawing praise for his rookie coolness.

And for those who judge their sports by variety of hairstyles, this World Cup shows what happens when John Deere mowers are granted access to salons.

As for the Americans, having lived through the Group of Death, they can rightly conclude they must be invincible. And for their fans, all that remains is to figure out a way to work up a mad-on for Belgium.

Brussels sprouts? Maybe. But Seattleites should know that Belgium averages 200 rainy days a year and makes great beer, so any hate on Tuesday will constitute a form of self-loathing.


  • RadioGuy

    Good piece, Art. I’ve been producing daily updates for two shortwave stations so I’m following the World Cup a bit closer than I normally would have. The Group stage was mostly very entertaining, even the 0-0 draw between Mexico and Brazil.

    What I’ve determined is that while it IS surprising that Spain and Italy are out (not so surprising with England), nearly everyone who made it to the Round of 16 belongs there. The fact that Spain is now the third defending champion in the past five World Cups to be ousted early tells me the gap between the elites and the rest of the soccer world continues to narrow. “Underdog” is now a relative term. “Unheralded” is more like it.

    No question we are in tough with Belgium Tuesday. They’re a young side with no stars, but the Belgians are solid throughout and they take care of business in their own end. The Belgians ran the table on an otherwise weak Group H and they’ll be hard for us to beat: Nothing flashy but they play well enough to win and that’s the name of the game from now on (in the knockout stage there are no more tomorrows).

    Right now, I think the Dutch are playing the best of all of them. VERY impressive in Group.

    • art thiel

      We tend to compare World Cups by the same standard we use for year-to-year seasons in American sports. Playing every fourth year is a long time for a national team to sustain personnel continuity. Each nation’s investment in a national soccer team is important, but it’s a stretch to assume success is sustainable over four years.

  • Jeff Shope

    lose and advance? no wonder participation ribbon lovers like soccer

    • RadioGuy

      The Group Stage at the World Cup is a round-robin playoff in which all four teams in a Group play each other once, with the top two teams moving ahead. The U.S. moved on because they beat Ghana and tied Portugal before losing to Germany.

      Using your logic, the Sonics never should’ve reached the playoffs because they lost their last regular-season game in 1979…you know, the year they won the title.

  • Mark Langley

    I wonder if Sigi is pondering the use of Yedlin in midfield?

    • art thiel

      Worked so far.

  • Doug

    Good Grief RadioGuy! Belgium is a young side with no stars? Just to name a few: Eden Hazard scored 14 goals for Chelsea this season. Lukaku scored 15 goals with Everton. Courtois is the starting goalkeeper for La Liga champions Atletico Madrid. His backup Mignolet starts for Liverpool. Kompany captains EPL champions Manchester City. So far Belgium hasn’t been impressive in its World Cup matches, but without stars?! No way.

    • art thiel

      He’s upset that FIFA sent home the tourney’s only vampire.

      • RadioGuy

        Yeah, my money was on Uruguay before Suarez’ shocking behavior. Who would’ve expected something like that from HIM? He really needs to consider becoming a vegan.

        Probably should’ve used a better word than “stars” to describe Belgium but I’m a little worn out on “superstars,” although that was probably the better term. After two weeks of mentioning guys like Messi, Neymar, Ronaldo, Van Persie, Balotelli, Rooney et al., the Belgians strike me as a very solid group lacking any worldwide household names (except among the hardcores).

        Hazard and Courtois ARE dandies and Wilmots has his team taking care of business in their own end. They aren’t exactly coming out of the most difficult group, though, and they’ll need to step it up offensively. We looked a little shaky in front of our own goal at times against Germany…thank God for Tim Howard, who’s played very well thus far.

  • Kim

    “We backed our way in” “lose to advance” “participation ribbons” ha ha ha, blah blah blah. We scored 4 points in one of the strongest groups in the group stage. I believe we are 1 of 4 teams to advance with 4 points out of the group stage. I think we have a real chance of beating Belgum. Now Argentina, that is another thing entirely.

    • Kirkland

      If we get past Belgium, anything else is gravy.