Yes, the United States advanced to the World Cup’s Round of 16 immediately following its 1-0 loss to Germany, but that’s not really the way one should look at it.
The World Cup, like nearly every team sport in this country, has a preliminary schedule – or a regular season – and then a playoff schedule. In this case, though, the preliminary portion of the World Cup is a short three games, unlike the 162-game baseball or 16-game football seasons.
In all of those other sports teams will frequently enter the playoffs having lost their last game.
The better way to approach the World Cup would be to say, Germany and the United States were in first and second place respectively in their group before the final regular-season game. Neither of the teams behind them – Portugal and Ghana – did enough in the final game to pass either of them.
It’s just like when the NFL publishes a series of complicated playoff scenarios in the final weeks of the season. Those always include a situation where a team holding a tiebreaker can clinch a spot if another team behind them fails to win.
And sometimes it’s an even more bizarre situation, like in the 2013 Kansas high school football districts where Maize lost to Hutchinson 33-31, but advanced due to a late touchdown to cut the Salthawks’ victory margin.
So while it might have made Americans feel better to advance with a win, or at least a draw, the outcome of the other matches had already made it likely the U.S. would move on. The Ghana-Portugal game’s result ultimately also was more important Thursday.
Belgium is ranked No. 11 in the world, according to FIFA, for what’s that worth. The U.S. is 13th in the monthly rankings, behind already-eliminated Portugal (No. 4), Italy (9) and England (10).
One of the reasons Belgium doesn’t get mentioned is the Red Devils have a poor record at major tournaments. Only eight countries have ever won the World Cup and Belgium hasn’t come close to joining that group, with the exception of a fourth-place finish in 1986 – the only year it has advanced past the Round of 16. It also hasn’t won the European Championship, with a second-place finish in 1980 being the high-water mark.
This squad is better than the team’s history, however, led by scorer Eden Hazard, defender Vincent Kompany and midfielder Kevin De Bruyne. Divock Origi, 19, has played great so far for the team in this tournament and Thibaut Courtois, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, is considered one of the top goalkeepers in the world.
However, Kompany, the Manchester City captain, missed the Belgians’ final group game with a groin injury and may not play Tuesday.
Oddsmakers have the U.S. team at roughly a 3-1 underdog to win, about the same odds that the Americans faced against Portugal.
Based on the history of the tournament and the interest Americans have shown by watching in record numbers, we’ll say this would be the biggest in history.
The U.S. has only advanced farther than the quarterfinals in one World Cup – the first one in 1930. And that owed a lot to the geography of few European teams traveling to the competition in Uruguay.
Other big wins for the U.S. have included a 1-0 victory over heavily-favored England in 1950, but that didn’t get the Americans out of the group. The U.S. took down other highly-ranked teams in group play in 1994 (Colombia) and 2002 (Portugal), but only once beat a team in quarterfinals in the modern era.
That came against regional rival Mexico in the 2002 World Cup, when the U.S. won with a familiar 2-0 score. But that game started at 1:30 a.m. in the U.S., meaning many didn’t get a chance to watch it.
With a 46-percent increase in the World Cup TV ratings from 2010, cresting with an estimated 25 million people watching the U.S.-Portugal game, it’s safe to say Tuesday’s game will have the country’s attention.
In terms of quality of play, the greatest U.S. victory in history is probably a 2-0 win over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal. Top-ranked Spain, already the defending Euro champion, was in the middle of an unprecedented run of world dominance. With goals by Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, the U.S. stunned the Spanish to make the finals of a major tournament for the first time, where Brazil beat the Americans 3-2.