Yesterday saw the conclusion of what might have been the best group stage I've ever seen in a World Cup. It was full of surprises, subplots, and a bite that made the front pages. The group stage is all about winnowing the field down to 16 teams, who enter the knockout rounds -- where there are no draws and one loss means you're out. For the first time, the United States Men's National Team (USMNT) has reached the knockout stage two times in a row. You'll recall that in South Africa, it took a dramatic last-minute goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria to put the US through. We were then bumped out by Ghana.
Not this time. In the so-called "Group of Death," the U.S. qualified by backing into the second spot behind Germany, who beat the Americans 1-0. Holding Die Mannschaft, as the German team is known, to a single goal is a real feat, although it looked to me like once they had the lead, the Germans were more interested in getting the ball to Miroslav Klose so he could try to break the all-time World Cup scoring record than in actually shooting themselves. Be that as it may, the Americans did not need to win, or even draw, although they looked certain to do the latter when a neat series of passes left Alejandro Bedoya with the ball in the box very late in the game. But Germany's Philipp Lahm made a lung-busting run to get back and block the goal-bound shot.
So what does it all mean?
Well, we got help from an old (okay, five-day-old) nemesis: Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be joining Andres Iniesta, Wayne Rooney, Mario Balotelli and Luis Suarez -- suspended for four months for his biting incident against Italy earlier this week -- on the list of superstars who will no longer be participating in the World Cup. But Ronaldo, who had been playing through a knee injury, seemed more like his old self against Ghana, hitting the crossbar early, threatening throughout, and finally scoring the goal that ensured that the U.S. did not need a result against Germany.
The Americans will play Belgium for the right to move on to the quarterfinals. The Belgians played just over half the game against South Korea with only 10 men, but still managed to create the better scoring chances and eventually took advantage of a keeper error to win 1-0. So they enter the knockout stage with three wins in three games and a lineup that looks, on paper, pretty awesome. But for some reason, the Belgians just haven't been convincing. The Red Devils, as the Belgian team is known, will be heavy favorites to beat the U.S., but we've already seen some pretty unexpected things in this year's tournament. Really, who saw Costa Rica versus Greece coming? So there are reasons for optimism: namely, an overachieving squad that plays hard, has some speed, has an eye-catching player in Jermaine Jones engineering the attack, and a coach who seems to be pressing all the right buttons.
What the USMNT does not have is a cool nickname. Seems like all the other kids -- sorry, I mean all the other teams -- have cool nicknames:
Cameroon: The Indomitable Lions. Wow. Uruguay: La Celeste (The Sky Blue). Brazil: A Seleção (The Selected). Mexico: El Tri (or El Tricolor, referring to the red, white and green of their flag). Nigeria: The Super Eagles. Algeria: The Desert Foxes.
The U.S. soccer team's nickname? I kid you not; it is "USMNT."
Come on America! If we're seriously gonna root for this team we need a name. Yanks or Yankees doesn't seem right -- that name's been taken, after all. Many countries' teams are named after their uniform color, but for obvious reasons we don't want to be called The Whites. So who's got a nickname for our world-beating, world-drawing, and occasionally world-losing-but-only-by-a-little team?
Our song for the day is one I've been saving. There is a little chant that you'll often hear the fans singing -- it sounds like they start with "oh...." and then jump up to another note and sing a little five-note descending motif. Fans of Arsenal, the North London team, use it for Spanish midfielder Santi Cazorla -- "Oh, SAN-ti Ca-ZOOOR-la." It has become a kind of anthem for the Italian National Team (nickname: Gli Azzurri - "The Blues"), and now I've heard the French, Portuguese, and a few other groups of fans singing it.
But the tune is American. It is, in fact, the opening bass-line of "Seven Nation Army" by The White Stripes. Hey, that wouldn't be a bad name for the USMNT, would it?