The German imprint on the US National Team is indelible. Without former German striker Jurgen Klinsmann as head coach, without the legion of German-American players he helped recruit, this team would not look the same. Nor would it have set a bevy of records for the program in 2013 or come so close to securing a place in the knockout round of the World Cup after just two games.
And now, with a four-year cycle of hard work, evaluation, cultural breakthroughs and buy-ins -- of building a new foundation and understanding under Klinsmann -- that German-American nexus within Team USA will be more important than ever in two halves of soccer against Germany on Thursday.
The collection of US players that learned the game in that soccer-mad country have some unique perspectives on a German team comprised almost entirely of players who perform in the German Bundisliga, and there is no coaching relationship in this tournament more interwoven than that of Klinsmann and his former right-hand man Jogi Loew, his top assistant in 2006 when Klinsi coached the upstart Germans to a final-four finish as host country despite being a team and country very much in transition with lowered expectations.
Do I believe that means this will be one big love-in on the pitch come noon ET Thursday on the final day of group play? No. But I also don't believe it's totally forgotten either. These are human beings, not cogs, and at a certain point in that match, should it stay close, in the midst of what has been a demanding event in terms of climate and travel and demands on the body and mind, I do believe that human nature, as well as the current Group G standings, could lead to a much less riveting finish than what the USA has become accustomed to thus far. At least I hope so.
As it stands, after a deflating 95th-minute equalizer by Portugal on Sunday, the US and Germans are tied with four points each ahead of their meeting in Brazil, both knowing a tie is enough for each to advance to the round of 16. Players and coaches have vowed this won't be some sort of glorified friendly with each team perfectly happy to settle for the single point and move on. Personally, I'd be just fine if in fact the match does play out in that manner, as both teams have earned the right to be in this position, and so often in soccer, the teams that are ruled by the heads, and not their hearts, live to see another day.
As the Americans' 95 grueling minutes against the Portuguese showed even a novice soccer fan, this tournament is cruel and crippling and draining and it is about results, ultimately, with no style points awarded, no bonuses for flair or creativity or domination. (Undoubtedly, Ghana would feel that it was worthy of at least a point against the US, and, despite dictating the most of the match, ended up just a loss.)
So as much as Klinsmann speaks about going for the win Thursday and trying to take it to his homeland and wanting to win the group, I suspect the US in fact adopts a more restrained approach against what might be the best team in this field, and I also wouldn't be shocked, after talking to some coaches I know who work at a high level in the game in this country, if Loew tries to get through the match with a handful of players who to this point have been used largely as substitutes.
The Germans won't be satisfied with anything less than hoisting a trophy on July 13, and their focus always has the long view in mind. Managing a team through what amount to the dog days of the World Cup, with knockouts just ahead next week, is a considerable part of Loew's job, and with a considerable bench to harvest, it could be the US sees slightly less than Germany's best. Of course, that in no way indicates an easy ride for the US, as hungry subs of this caliber are still capable of changing a match, but it may be something less than the highly tuned team that Lowe prefers to roll out.
Klinsmann, of course, enjoys no such luxuries.
He must put together the best team he possibly can to keep the Americans in the match; to find a way to keep ample bodies behind the ball but also to be able to retain the ball for minutes at a time when the US does have it, and to create chances from the run of play and be disciplined and sound both taking and defending set pieces, with the size, strength and aerial ability of the Germans always a decided strength of theirs.
If Germany sticks with what amounts to a 4-3-3, then I can't imagine Klinsmann doing anything but going with five in the midfield as he did against Portugal with such success (and thus Clint Dempsey again as a lone striker in the absence of injured forward Jozy Altidore). I want more bodies again taking away passing lanes and easy service to the likes of scoring machine Thomas Mueller, with Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman able to play the role of dual-destroyers (and with Jones also able to distribute the ball pushed more up the pitch as well if need be).
Jones has been far and away the best American player in this tournament, my Man of the Match in both outings, and his German upbringing and years of playing against these German players both in German youth national teams and in the Bundesliga has to count for something. He will be fearless, and, hopefully, as smart and restrained as he has displayed thus far in this tournament, avoiding the overly physical play that so often results in quick cards for him. He has been the heart and soul of this team in this tournament, rising to the moment while, far too often, central midfielder Michael Bradley, who was supposed to be Mr. Everything to the USA, has flailed and faltered.
Jones again will be the key in midfield Thursday, and I'd like to see this team get more out of its wingers in terms of service and counter-attack in this game than was the case in this formation against Portugal. Perhaps adding Mikkel Diskerud to the mix, over say, Graham Zusi, might make sense, with Zusi still an option for late-game corners and crosses if need be. Beckerman and Jones have formed a nice tandem and Bradley, I would like to think, would continue to build on the gains he made in terms of distribution on Sunday, rather than wilt in the aftermath of his suspect possession with the game on the line and his suffering finishing.
Fabian Johnson, another German-American, remains so vital to the backline. His runs from the right back spot have been spectacular and his ability to beat defenders both out wide with his speed on overlaps and also by cutting to the inside on the dribble, make this team go at times. Next to Jones, he has been the Americans' second best player (Dempsey would merit consideration as well), and I can't help but wonder if Klinsmann puts even more of a German stamp on the defense.
For all that DaMarcus Beasley did at left back against Portugal -- and he was quite good -- the Germans are a different threat, much brawnier and bigger and that's not something Beasley can easily combat. Timmy Chandler's issues at left back were well chronicled in the friendlies leading to the World Cup, but he is another Bundesliga regular and I get the sense Klinsi is tempted to have him on the pitch.
More natural on the right, does moving Johnson to the left take away too much of the attacking surge he provides on the right? After having a truly horrific outing on Sunday, so directly responsible for both Portugal goals, is Geoff Cameron shot mentally? Would he be better served, if not on the bench -- with perhaps yet another German-based player, John Brooks, who scored the winner against Ghana, replacing him -- then perhaps with Cameron moved outside to right back, and then maybe Johnson on the left in that case, too?
No matter how German the US lineup ends up being, consider this yet another case of Klinsmann shutting up his critics. You don't hear any talk of "over-reliance" on German players or such nonsense now, do you? His loyalty to Jones -- and, domestically, to Beckerman, a relatively anonymous veteran MLS midfielder with bleak national team prospects before Klinsmann's arrival -- have been richly rewarded, and he managed to find a way to make the end of longtime US stalwart right back Steve Cherundolo's career a non-issue with Johnson's ascent. And, even for a former national German treasure like Klinsmann, it requires hard work.
What struck me most of everything displayed on the Inside: US Soccer documentaries ESPN ran prior top the tournament, was the effort Klinsmann put into securing teenage starlet striker Julian Green to the US squad, as he was also eligible to join Germany at some point should he develop as expected. You could see how much effort Klinsmann put into trips abroad to put in groundwork, the personal touch he displayed with dual-nationals like Green and Aron Johannsson (who could have played for Iceland), how actively he recruited them and worked to make them feel like part of the group. The warm embrace he gave Green, the way he introduced him to the team ahead of the friendly with Ukraine, made it clear what an impact he thought the players could make in a flash now, if needed, and certainly for years to come.
He wasn't sitting back and relying on his name as a player and his pedigree; he was wooing them, unrepentantly. That's a man looking to stick around a while and finish a job (this all came well before his contract extension), and not one in survival mode willing to put long-term advances on hold in pursuit of results that might keep him at the helm. After losing players to other countries in the recent past, it warmed my heart to see Klinsmann's unabashed approach.
Imagine if this US team had Giuseppe Rossi (Italy via New Jersey) as an option up top, and Neven Subotic (Serbia) anchoring what had been a perpetually concerning center of the defense. I don't even want to think about it. The pool of talent isn't deep enough to lose that sort of world-class talent without an all-out fight, which makes the pursuit of Green -- himself still so very green, excuse the lame pun -- that close to the start of the World Cup even more impressive in my eyes and a statement of Klinsmann's intent.
So whether Green plays a minute in this tournament or not, I'll take him practicing and bonding and being integrated in this group, and keeping him away from Germany, over whatever 20-30 minutes an entitled Landon Donovan might have provided at age 32, as unlikely it is Klinsmann would have deployed him even as a top substitute anyway. I'll gladly take another German-American in the mix, a player being brought up in the Bayern Munich youth academy -- unquestionably one of the top teams in the world -- and who knows, maybe Green even sees the pitch on Thursday in some capacity.
Few would have had the foresight and guile and gall to bring on teenager DeAndre Yedlin -- out of position as a midfielder no less -- against Portugal late, and it ended up changing the game. If Klinsmann decides to go uber-German against his country in the group stage finale, I dare say he deserves the benefit of the doubt, and tweaking that backline against such a formidable foe might be in order to secure that do-or-die point. Because relying on Ghana to get a result that does anything other than knock the US out of the World Cup, history has shown us, is probably folly, and expecting much from a lackluster and all-but-expunged Portugal squad looks like wishful thinking.