Patriotism, loyalty, friendship, sportsmanship and strategy are all hot topics leading up to the much-anticipated U.S.-Germany Group G finale on Thursday in Recife.
Both the U.S. and Germany have four points after two matches, and each have a strong chance to advance to the World Cup 2014 knockout stage. According to fivethirtyeight.com, Germany has a 99.7 percent chance of advancing, while the U.S. has a 75.8 percent chance. Meanwhile, Ghana has just 9.1 percent chance of advancing, while Portugal is at 5.4 percent.
The situation for the U.S. and Germany is particularly interesting because there are questions surrounding how both nations should play the final group match. Should the U.S. win, they will finish on top of the group and face the runner-up of Group H, which would be considerably weaker than the expected Group H winner, Belgium. By going for a win, as opposed to playing cautiously for a draw, the U.S. defense would be exposed to counterattack goals, and therefore put their Round-of-16 hopes in jeopardy. A lopsided loss could mean elimination for either nation.
While the multiple scenarios are intriguing, perhaps the most fascinating storyline entering the U.S. – Germany match is the numerous connections between the two nations.
The most notable revolve around U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was born near Stuttgart and played for and previously coached the German team. He will face his protégé, Joachim Low, who has coached Germany since replacing Klinsmann in 2006.
A head coach facing his former assistant is nothing new in sports. Legendary NBA coach Larry Brown has faced off against his former assistant Gregg Popovich on multiple occasions. Popovich, who has been the San Antonio Spurs head coach since 1996, has basically run similar Brown schemes from Brown's time as head coach of the Spurs in the early 1990s.
It is also common for coaches to cross borders in international competition, in both basketball and soccer. Donnie Nelson, son of famed NBA coach Don Nelson, was born in Iowa, but has coached basketball on the international level for Lithuania, and served as the chief advisor for China’s national team.
Former U.S. soccer coach Bob Bradley, who is the father of current player Michael Bradley, was the national coach for Egypt. In 1994, the U.S. was coached by Bora Milutinovic, who has coached a whopping nine nations.
At times, a head coach facing his former protégé can be a contentious issue. That goes for not only soccer, but all sports.
Super Bowl champion head coaches Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick were on the same New York Giants coaching staff in 1979, and there has been talk of a feud between the two men after both had a long tenure in the AFC East. Parcells reportedly felt betrayed by Belichick, who served as his assistant. Meanwhile, Belichick is rumored to feel that Parcells was difficult to work with, and the two were never really friends.
There is no such acrimony between Klinsmann and Low. In fact, the two are rather close. There has been speculation that Klinsmann and Low are scheming for both to advance to the Round of 16 by neither club playing for a victory.
Klinsmann was quick to dispel such talk.
“There is no time for friendship calls,” Klinsmann said. “This is all about business now. There will be no such call.”
The way the U.S. and Germany prepare for the match will almost certainly have to do with the way Klinsmann and Low know each other. Both coaches are aptly aware of the other’s strengths and weaknesses. They also have strong knowledge of their opponent’s roster.
The same goes for the players. Of the combined 46 players on the two rosters, 31 have Bundesliga experience. While Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, John Brooks, and Timothy Chandler will all dawn the Red, White, and Blue, they were all born in Germany. Teenage American star Julian Green was born in Tampa, Florida, but grew up in Germany. All the aforementioned players had the choice to play for either the U.S. or Germany.
There might some question as to how so many German-born players feel about facing their home country. In recent years, there has been a high number of soccer players making the tough decision of which country to play for, and it’s become more commonplace for these players to have their patriotic loyalty questioned. There has also been apathy, as some nations' supporters disregard the importance of the player's role with the squad.
While players like Johnson and Jones have been great additions to the U.S. roster, Germany remains such a powerhouse that their absence from Germany hasn’t been much of a loss. The German side might be the deepest roster in the World Cup, and Low had his choice of more accomplished players than any that chose the U.S. over Germany.
The Germany-U.S. connection also goes deeper than coaches and current players. Multiple American-born players have played in the Bundesliga over the years. Steve Cherundolo, one of the most accomplished U.S. players ever, spent so much time with one Bundesliga team that he was nicknamed “Mayor of Hannover.” Cherundolo, 35, received some consideration to play in his third World Cup before announcing his retirement in March.
During the years when the U.S. struggled to qualify for the World Cup, there was an emphasis on the U.S. to utilize the style and strategy of Germany, a country with three World Cup titles on their resume. In 2002, the U.S. nearly reached the semifinals in a tight matchup which Germany won, 1-0. The last time the two nations met was in a friendly in Washington, D.C., which ended in a U.S. victory, 4-3. At one point, the Yanks held a 4-1 lead.
Thursday’s match might be decided by how much the students have learned from their teachers.