TIME World Cup

Messi’s Legacy Debate Continues

Lionel Messi 2014 World Cup
Lionel Messi of Argentina reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup match against Germany on July 13 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Mike Hewitt - FIFA—Getty Images

Messi missed the free kick in the 120th minute of play against Germany, sealing Argentina's fate

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By Brian Straus

RIO DE JANEIRO – Time was slipping away, yet Lionel Messi still had plenty.

Germany’s Bastian Schweinsteiger, who committed the 120th-minute foul that offered Messi the opportunity for one last look at goal, was receiving treatment a few feet away. The Argentine maestro took advantage of the pause. He stood quietly for a moment then bent over and pressed his fingertips into the ball, testing the air pressure.

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Messi was calm and deliberate, as if he hoped the measured pace of his movement would help clear his mind and calm any nerves. He was about 25 yards away and to the left of Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. Argentina trailed, 1-0, in the dying seconds ofthe World Cup final at the Estádio do Maracanã and its fading hopes for a third title rested where they always had – at Messi’s feet.

It was an opportunity he’d surely rehearsed countless times – maybe as a boy in Rosario, where he was born the year after Diego Maradona carried Argentina to its second world championship. It became more realistic as Messi’s own star ascended in Barcelona, where he won every team trophy there is,along with a record four FIFA World Player of the Year awards. This was supposed to be Messi’s World Cup, the tournament where the sport’s most spectacular player, in his prime at 27, would end any debate about his place in soccer’s pantheon and in the hearts of his countrymen.

The free kick missed by miles, soaring over Neuer and into the crowd. Messi looked up toward the sky with an ironic, resigned smile on his face. That was it. The sport’s greatest goal scorer would be shut out for a fourth consecutive match, one he called “the most important of our lives” in a Facebook post. Argentina would lose the final and Messi, perhaps, his place alongside Pelé and Diego, if that ever was at stake.

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It could have been so much simpler. Messi already has accomplished at the club level what Maradona never could, and he played this World Cup under a spotlight that his predecessor couldn’t have imagined 28 years ago. Win it, dominate it, and the argument is over.

Maradona was regarded as supremely gifted – Barcelona bought him from Boca Juniors for a world record $7.6 million in 1982. But he hardly was a legendwhen that fateful World Cup rolled around in ‘86. He’d escaped the slums of suburban Buenos Aires andwon a couple of South American player of the year awards, one Argentine league title and a FIFA World Youth Championship. But he’d struggled with injuries and chemistry at Barcelona and hadn’t yet lifted Napoli to glory. No one expected or demanded a title when La Albiceleste arrived in Mexico. At 25, he wasn’t chasing immortality.

Messi was playing under a different sort of pressure here in Brazil and he rose to the occasion during the group stage. He scored in the opener versus Bosnia-Herzegovina, beat Iran with a stoppage-time goal then tallied twice against Nigeria. Messi then turned playmaker, setting up Ángel di María’s gorgeous game-winner in the round-of-16 matchup with Switzerland.

But as the tournament wore on and the opponents got tougher, Messi’s impact waned.Under manager Alejandro Sabella, Argentina has focused first on defense, starting with goalkeeper Sergio Romero and inspired by midfielder Javier Mascherano, who remains the squad’s soul if not its captain. Argentina’s soccer is far from the rhythmic, high-pressure, possession-based sort that Messi enjoys at Barcelona. Argentina had only 40 percent of the ball on Sunday, a statistic that might cause a riot at the Camp Nou.

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Messi’s contributions in the knockout rounds were intermittent and tactical. Set up to stymie Argentina’s primary threat, opponents made sacrifices in the attack. Games tightened up and scoring chances were at a premium. Sabella oftendeployed Messi in a deeper position. Hemight find the ball a bit easier there, but he was further from goal once he had it. In the semifinal against the Netherlands, Messi was shadowed effectively by Nigel De Jong and then Jordy Clasie.

On Sunday, he started behind one forward rather than two but still had lots of ground to cover when the ball came his way. And there were significant stretches when it didn’t. None of his four shots was on target, he was late arriving on a couple of counterattacks and he saw two promising first-half crosses cleared from danger after runs down the right. Messi’s best chance came in the 46th, but his left-footed shot whizzed across the face of the German net and past the far post.

Sabella refused to respond directly to a post-game question concerning Messi’s fitness, saying that he thought his captain had an “extraordinary” tournament and deserved the Golden Ball award handed by FIFA to the World Cup’s top player. Indeed, Messi led the competition in scoring chances created (21) heading into the final, a testament to his skill and efficiency. But that’s hardly a statistic they’ll be singing from the stadium terraces in Buenos Aires, and the glum look on Messi’s face as he accepted that trophy was clear indication that his dream had been dashed.

He described it in Saturday’s Facebook post.

“My dreams and my hopes are being fulfilled due to the hard work and sacrifice of a team that has given everything from match one,” he wrote. “We want to win, and we are ready.”

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He could have made it easier for the public and the pundits by scoring a couple goals on Sunday and carrying the more important hardware back to Buenos Aires. There’d be a three-way tie for GOAT. But it already was pretty simple for Messi, who’s famously shy and the polar opposite of the outspoken, effervescent Maradona. He doesn’t play for the history or the trappings. He’s been known to sulk when benched at Barcelona, which can happen during a game that’s out of hand or meaningless. He simply wants to be on the field.

“The only thing that matters is playing. I have enjoyed it since I was a little boy and I still try to do that every time I go out onto a pitch. I always say that when I no longer enjoy it or it’s no longer fun to play, then I won’t do it anymore. I do it because I love it and that’s all I care about,” he told ESPN’s E:60 in an interview prior to the World Cup. “I want to be world champion but not to change the perception of others towards me or to achieve greatness like they say, but rather to reach the goal with my national team, and to add a World Cup to my list of titles.”

Some Argentines feared his loyalty lay with Barcelona, or even Spain, where he moved at 13. His goalless 2010 World Cup (when Maradona was the coach) didn’t help. Messi suffered from a growth hormone deficiency as a child, and his family was unable to find an Argentine club willing to pay for his treatment, which cost more than $10,000 per year. The Catalans offered, so he left. He owes Argentina nothing but has continued to profess his love for his country. He’s already been capped more than Maradona and still has years left to play.

“I believe he’s in that pantheon. But he was there before,” Sabella said Sunday. “He’s been there for quite a while already, in the pantheon of the big ones.”

Germany coach Joachim Löw said he told substitute striker Mario Götze during the brief break before extra time, “Show the world that you’re better than Messi and that you can decide the World Cup.” Götze decided it, scoring the game’s only goal on a brilliant volley in the 113th minute.

Germany’s World Cup Title a Result of Revamped Development, Identity

But no one believes he’s better than Messi. He’ll never come close. Lifting theWorld Cup is about far more than a given shot, a single game or the bounces during a month-long tournament. Champions are forged in the long term through persistent work at the grassroots and league levelsand a focus on culture and player development.

Löw said Sunday that Germany’s route to the trophy started in 2004, the year he and Jurgen Klinsmann took over Die Mannschaft and Messi made his senior pro debut. The talent and depth on display in Rio was a decade in the making. As Germany accepted the trophy, Götze held up the jersey of injured winger Marco Reus, who many considered the team’s most dangerous player.He missed the tournament. Götze was a substitute. The man who passed him the ball, Andre Schürrle, also was a reserve. He’d relieved Christoph Kramer, who was the replacement for late scratch Sami Khedira. Messi has nowhere near that reservoir of talent with which to work. His silver medal is the reflection of a whole lot more than his (in)ability to master the moment.

Messi will move on. The next game will be the most important of his life. His legacy may be murky for some, but that’s the fun of sports. Those who want to debate it can do so. Those who are happy to let it go and are able to relax — or sit on the edge of their seat — and enjoy the remaining years of one of soccer’s most transcendent, exciting careers alsocan do so.

Messi will keep on motoring.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

Watch Every World Cup Goal in 1 Minute

TIME World Cup

Argentina vs. Germany Referee Controversy Echoes, 24 Years Later

1990 World Cup Germany Argentina
West German forward Rudi Voeller heads the ball over Argentinian defender Oscar Ruggeri as forward Juergen Klinsmann looks on during the 1990 World Cup final between West Germany and Argentina July 8, 1990 in Rome. GEORGES GOBET—AFP/Getty Images

The two teams last faced off during the 1990 World Cup in Italy

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By Ben Lyttleton

The outstanding image from the last time Germany and Argentina met in the World Cup final, back in Italy in 1990, was not Andreas Brehme striking home the winning penalty in the 85th minute, securing the 1-0 win for the European side, nor was it coach Franz Beckenbauer celebrating with the trophy.

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It was actually current U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, tackled late by Pedro Monzon after a one-two combination with Lothar Matthaus, rolling three times and then raising up on one shoulder to continue his pained reaction. The challenge was in keeping with the rest of the game, and Monzon, a halftime substitute, was shown a straight red card for the tackle by referee Edgardo Codesal.

Worse was to come for Argentina: five minutes from time, Codesal awarded West Germany a penalty after Matthaus played through Rudi Voller, who, tightly marked by Roberto Sensini, fell to the ground in the area.

Previously in the match, Codesal had rejected Gabriel Calderon’s claims after a similar clash with Klaus Augenthaler.

Two minutes later, Codesal sent off another Argentine, Gustavo Dezotti, for grabbing Jurgen Kohler around the neck and wrestling him to the ground in an effort to get the ball off him for a throw-in. Codesal ran over and theatrically brandished his second red of the game, reducing Argentina to nine men.

“The referee has been physically manhandled by five players and if Argentina continue like this, FIFA will have to ban them from the next World Cup!” said BBC commentator John Motson. “Surely you can’t have this in the final!”

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This was Codesal’s last game as a referee. When he returned to Mexico after the game [he was Mexican-Uruguayan, and his grandfather was born in Argentina], he was confronted with hordes of journalists.

“I was brave and honest, like I always am,” he said. “The foul was Argentina’s fault, not mine. I’m calm and happy.”

At that World Cup, Codesal had taken charge of Italy’s 1-0 win over USA, awarding a penalty missed by Gianluca Viali, and blew for two penalties as England beat Cameroon 3-2 in the quarterfinal. FIFA observers gave him an average rating of 8.5 for his performances.

Codesal’s father, Jose Maria, was a referee who officiated at the 1966 World Cup. The one piece of advice he gave his son: “Don’t ever give a penalty if you think you will have to explain it a thousand times.” Nine years on, he remained convinced that his decision had been the correct one.

“I have no doubt,” he told Ole. “The referees don’t have to look for intent, they have to look for contact. This is what I saw: the Argentine tried to get to the ball first but he stretched his leg and tackled the German. It was a penalty. I was convinced at the time and I have not changed my mind since. For me, it’s a closed case.”

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The case, actually, was far from closed. Soon after that interview, Humberto Rojano, the former president of the Mexican Referees’ Commission, went public on how Codesal had been appointed. He spoke of a meeting he had with Javier Arriaga, former head of the Mexican FA’s Referees’ Commission and a key figure in FIFA’s Referees’ Commission in 1990. Arriaga also happened to be Codesal’s father-in-law.

Rojano told Mexican paper La Jornada that “the authorities,” ­a phrase that is deliberately vague, ­had told Arriaga that “Argentina didn’t have to win.”

“I know the Argentines still hate me and that hurts,” Codesal told Reforma years later. “I love them and it hurts that I made them suffer. I would have liked Argentina won their third World Cup back in 1990. If I were God, I would change things, but I’m not God. I do know that in 50 years, they still won’t forgive me.”

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Codesal had actually watched the 1986 World Cup final between the same sides in Mexico, and had been supporting Argentina. But in 2011, over 20 years after the incident, Codesal’s stance had hardened against the continued hostility from the losing nation.

“I admire the Argentines for their will to win, but they have not learnt to lose, they just can’t accept it,” he said. “Someone told them that they lost because I was the referee, and they believed it. When Maradona uses his hand to score, that’s intelligent; but if they don’t win, it’s because someone stole from them.”

FIFA will announce the referee for Sunday’s clash between Germany and Argentina Friday afternoon, and whoever earns the honor will surely be operating with the cloud of Codesal lingering in the memory.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

GALLERY: Brazil Fans React to Semifinal Demolition

TIME World Cup

FIFA Denies Luis Suarez’s Appeal for Chiellini Bite

World Cup Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez of Uruguay reacts after biting Giorgio Chiellini of Italy during a 2014 FIFA World Cup match on June 24 in Natal, Brazil. Shaun Botterill—FIFA/Getty Images

This was Suarez's third career biting incident

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By Paul Palladino

Uruguayan Luis Suarez’s appeal of his suspension has been denied by FIFA, soccer’s governing body announced on Thursday.

Suarez was suspended last month for biting Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini during a World Cup match on June 24. He was banned for nine of Uruguay’s matches in addition to a four-month ban from all soccer-related events, meaning he will have to sit out matches for his club, Liverpool

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It was the third biting incident in Suarez’s career. He was also suspended eight matches and fined $63,000 for racist remarks on the pitch in 2011.

In Suarez’s absence, Uruguay lost in the round of 16 to Colombia in the 2014 World Cup.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

WATCH: Argentina Ousts Dutch, Sets Up Final vs. Germany

 

TIME World Cup

Blitz Breakdown: How Mighty Germany Ripped Apart Brazil

World Cup Team Germany
German team celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup semifinal against Brazil on July 8 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Martin Rose—Getty Images

The German team scored an historic five goals in 18 minutes of play

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By Liviu Bird

A match’s opening period is dicey for analytical purposes. It usually can’t be analyzed too thoroughly because teams may settle in slowly or make tactical adjustments to respond to an opponent. Not so much for Germany on Tuesday.

Germany needed very little time to acclimate to its World Cup semifinal, demolishing Brazil 7-1 after a strong first 30 minutes, which included five goals in an 18-minute span for the ages.

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Germany controlled the match through calculated, choreographed pressing in its front block, as well as targeted ball movement in possession. The style wasn’t too surprising, considering the pressing emphasis in the Bundesliga recently, with Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpressing at Borussia Dortmund and Pep Guardiola’s system at Bayern Munich.

The magnitude of the result, though, will be shocking for decades to come, especially because Brazil was on the front foot in the first five minutes, winning a corner kick within 60 seconds of kickoff. Germany fired warning shots in transition, and after riding the initial chaos of Brazil’s energetic start, it put Brazil in a stranglehold.

Germany’s main defensive posture was a 4-1-4-1 medium block, drawing its line of confrontation just above the center circle. Brazil couldn’t build out of the back, playing long balls into the strong German defense or over the touchline. An inability to create was a constant theme for Brazil this tournament, minus Neymar’s individual brilliance.

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The fourth German goal resulted from Khedira and Kroos’ direct central pressure, as Dante played a poor short pass to Fernandinho, who had his back to the field and no outlet. That was the only first-half goal that came from the middle, as the other four were created wide.

Germany’s first good chance was in the seventh minute, exploiting the space Marcelo vacated when he bombed down Germany’s right flank. With Thomas Muller and Philipp Lahm running the channel and Mesut Ozil tucking in from the left, Germany built 53 percent of its attacks down the right.

The corner kick that led to the first goal also came from using the space Marcelo conceded. He could only recover and knock the ball out for a set piece. As Brazil scrambled to regain defensive positioning in transition, the player on the ball in that wide space had an array of options.

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This is where the analogy of football as chess comes in. Rehearsed team movements cause reactionary movements in the opponent, leaving spaces to attack. Germany created seven scoring chances in the first half hour to Brazil’s zero, mainly through Khedira and Muller down the right.

The Germans looked for a vertical initial ball to catch overlapping players in transition. In instances where that was nonviable, they built up through short passes and quick movements.

Despite having clear control of the match, Germany never maintained the majority of possession statistically. It was a pragmatic approach that kept the ball away from Brazil’s top block and allowed square passes by Brazil’s defenders that led to nothing.

Still, possession elements were especially noticeable on Germany’s second and third goals.

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On the second, Muller ran in from his wide starting position, slashing through the back line to create a central opportunity. Marcelo kept him onside as the only Brazilian defender inside the penalty area, and Klose was on hand for a simple layoff, as he was behind the ball but ahead of the center backs.

Marcelo struggled defensively all night, a product of his focus on getting forward too high and too early. Germany exploited him as the weak link in the back four, and Brazil never adjusted despite facing similar attacks the entire first half-hour.

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On Germany’s third goal, two more typical elements of a possession system emerged: a central overload and playing between lines. Ozil moved to create a 5-on-3 advantage in the middle, and Lahm overlapped on the right.

Muller stayed between Brazil’s holding-midfield block and defensive line from build-up to finish, constantly looking over his shoulder to check his positioning in respect to his opponents’. Nobody tracked his run, and although he whiffed his shot at the top of the penalty area, Toni Kroos made a similar movement just behind him and finished emphatically.

The team-first emphasis and selflessness in this German attack is strongly reminiscent of Spain in the height of its golden generation that crashed to earth this World Cup. Players interchange effortlessly and pass fluidly — such as on Germany’s fifth goal, capping 30 minutes of misery for Brazil — rather than go for glory alone.

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It should come as no surprise with six Bayern Munich players in the lineup that Germany’s emphasis on organized pressing and fluid play between opposing lines is Guardiola-flavored, possession-based football at its best.

Germany has always been difficult to beat on the big stage; Tuesday’s performance was anchored in a typically detail-oriented tactical approach. However, the particulates of this German machine are meshed with tiki-taka characteristics to give the team a tilt toward a more flexible Spanish style of play.

In a lot of ways, Joachim Low has created an evolution of Vicente del Bosque’s dominant force from much of the last decade. Kickstarted by Jurgen Klinsmann after Germany’s embarrassing winless group stage at Euro 2004 and fine-tuned by Guardiola coaching the majority of the team’s starting lineup all club season, this is perhaps what Germany needed to take the next step for the first time in 24 years and win another World Cup.

The most obvious holdover characteristic from great past German teams is this group’s winning mentality, also seen in the early 4-0 destruction of Portugal and in resilient performances against scrappy challengers the United States and Algeria.

When Brazil finally scored Tuesday, in second-half stoppage time while facing a 7-0 deficit, Neuer slapped the ground in frustration. Schweinsteiger openly berated Ozil for missing an obvious chance moments before conceding. That goal was all that stood between Germany and perfection in Belo Horizonte, a shutout the only flourish missing from a cold, ruthless machine’s devastation of a pressure-laden team collapsing under the weight of its own emotional expectation.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

GALLERY: Brazil’s Having a Bad Day

TIME World Cup

The American Helping Germany’s World Cup Quest

Shad Forsythe Germany Training
Shad Forsythe (left), assistant coach of Germany, talks to Bastian Schweinsteiger during the German national team training on June 23, 2014 in Santo Andre, Brazil. Martin Rose—Getty Images

He was originally appointed in 2004 when Jurgen Klinsmann was coaching Germany's team

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By Ben Lyttleton

The USA may be out of the World Cup, but there is still an American influence in Brazil, and it’s part of the legacy that Jurgen Klinsmann put in place while he was coaching the Germany team at the 2006 competition.

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Shad Forsythe is an American fitness coach who works for Athletes Performance, the company Klinsmann brought in upon his appointment to the German post in 2004. Forsythe has been with the team ever since and is now Performance Manager of Die Mannschaft. He is so trusted by coach Joachim Low that at the 2010 World Cup, he delivered the final words in the locker room before the players took the field.

His job is to ensure the players are in peak condition for every game and, specifically, at major tournaments. It’s made easier by the fact that the German players have bought into his methods and that his evaluations can take place throughout the season. “We monitor them through regular communication with their clubs, so we know exactly what situation they are in when they join up with us.”

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As research for my book Twelve Yards: The Art and Psychology of the Perfect Penalty, I wanted to understand why German players had the best record in international penalty shootouts, especially when at the club level German players had a below-average record (and certainly worse than English players).

I spoke to Forsythe after Germany had qualified for the World Cup and discovered his thoughts on the German psyche, and how Germany might prepare for a penalty shootout once it reached the knockout stages. Given that Germany takes on France in Friday’s quarterfinal – a repeat of the 1982 semifinal, the first World Cup game that went to a shootout – it might just come in useful.

The penalty practice in the Germany camp takes place throughout the qualifying phase, but stops once the tournament begins. It only re-starts once the team reaches the knockout stages. In 2006, when Klinsmann was coach, after training, every player took a penalty; before doing so, he would have to nominate into a camera where he would kick the ball – bottom right, top left, that sort of thing. Anyone who missed would be eliminated, and the competition would continue until only one player was left. It normally took four or five penalties to find a winner. The process helped Klinsmann select penalty takers.

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When midfielder Tim Borowski, for example, nominated his spot – “Bottom left,” he said – the goalkeeper overheard him and stood next to the post where Borowski had said he would aim. Borowski did not flinch and powered his shot towards the same spot. He scored. Germany’s quarterfinal against Argentina went to penalties, and whom did Klinsmann bring off the bench who scored a penalty? Borowski.

“You can’t say he came on just for the penalty, but it’s definitely a positive to know that he is confident from the spot,” said Forsythe.

Forsythe will know everything about the player before he takes that penalty: from their mineral deficiencies, their VO2 max (a measure of the body’s ability to transport oxygen during exercise) to their napping patterns and how much sleep he got the previous night.

Given that preparation and recovery is such a key part of Forsythe’s methodology, I wondered if standing upright for 10 minutes after playing for 120 minutes was the ideal preparation for a penalty. Shouldn’t the players be stretching, running on the spot, anything rather than just standing there?

“From a physiological point of view,” he replied, “the most important thing is that they are calm, and part of that is cooling – so you always see them drinking cool fluid. Usually the adrenalin will keep them going but if they have to wait longer than 15 minutes, then they will stiffen up and that could be a problem.”

Forsythe, who has reportedly been courted by Arsenal to join its staff this coming season, agreed with my theory that German goalkeepers have a history of excellence. In fact, he thinks the current of goalkeepers has the potential to be better than Oliver Kahn and Jens Lehmann – partly because the likes of Manuel Neuer are better athletes too.

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To Forsythe, the penalty is 90 percent psychological and 10 percent physical. His job is making that 10 percent work to ensure the 90 percent works too.

“Confidence comes from knowing that physically they are ready for this,” he said. “They know they will be ready for any scenario.”

He makes it sound like none of the German players suffer from self-doubt. Surely that wasn’t right?

“If they don’t want to take penalties, it will be because of physical reasons: they have a weak shot, they don’t score many goals – those physical issues will limit their confidence,” Forsythe said. “But remember that the strongest shooters do not necessarily make the best penalty-takers – you need to factor personality in too – and that penalty failure is just not on the German horizon.”

The cultural difference is all too clear to Forsythe, who last year changed his routine when watching Germany take a penalty. He now stands on the touchline and watches the crowd – a true avoidance strategy.

“I have a 100 percent record with that method so I will stick with it,” he laughed.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

TIME World Cup

Belgium a Dynamic Test for USA Amid High Expectations, Golden Generation

Belgium 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
Daniel Van Buyten of Belgium acknowledges the fans after a 1-0 victory in a 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil match against South Korea on June 26 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Phil Walter—Getty Images

"I feel like the people [in Belgium] are confident they’re going to beat the U.S.”

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By Brian Straus

SALVADOR, Brazil – They may not chant it like their American counterparts, but Belgians also believe that they will win.

Two years of hype, their players’ success at the club level and three wins during the World Cup’s group stage have Red Devils fans feeling pretty good heading into Tuesday’s round-of-16 showdown with the U.S. here in Brazil’s original capital. That’s according to American midfielder Sacha Kljestan, who’s had a front-row seat on Belgium’s emergence as a World Cup contender while playing for Brussels-based power Anderlecht, which claimed its third consecutive league title in May.

“Every car has Belgian flags on it. People are wearing the jerseys everywhere. People are behind the team and I do think they’re fully expecting to beat the U.S.,” said Kljestan, who left MLS for Brussels in 2010 and fell short of earning a spot in Jurgen Klinsmann’s World Cup roster. “Belgium played them twice in the last three years [in exhibitions] and won both times. I don’t know if the national team is going to be overconfident but I feel like the people here are confident they’re going to beat the U.S.”

Belgium defeated Klinsmann and Co., 1-0, in Brussels in Sept. 2011, shortly after the new coach took over, and then again, 4-2, last year in Cleveland.

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U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez said there were mitigating circumstances in 2013, when the Americans had just one day of training before facing Belgium. But nine of the 11 U.S. starters that day have been key contributors at this World Cup, and they were torn apart by the talented and dynamic Red Devils. That match was indicative of Belgium’s performance over the past two years. It stormed through World Cup qualifying, finishing 8-0-2 in a group that included Croatia and Serbia, and has lost only three of 24 games in that span, all friendlies.

“It’s a very good team, a team full of players who are playing at the highest level in Europe for the biggest clubs,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “A country that doesn’t have the history of Germany or Italy or some of these countries, but when you look over the past few years, when you look at the quality of their players, it certainly has to be talked about as one of the best teams in Europe.”

Indeed, Belgium lacks that history. Its heyday came in the 1980s, when it won the silver medal at the 1980 European Championship and finished fourth at the World Cup six years later. But like many of Europe’s second-tier soccer nations, Belgium had difficulty sustaining its success. It’s most recent appearance at a major tournament (before this summer) came back at the 2002 World Cup. Those fallow periods aren’t uncommon. Countries like Sweden, Turkey, Croatia or Portugal will find themselves blessed with a “golden generation” of players, make a run and then fall back to the pack, hoping the cycle eventually repeats itself.

For Belgium, that time is now.

“They have only one player, [Daniel] van Buyten, who’s even played in a World Cup or a European Championship before, so I think they’re trying to be realistic,” Kljestan said. “But it’s hard not to get your hopes up when you see how talented the group is.”

WATCH: World Cup Round of 16 Preview: USA vs. Belgium

Fourteen of the 23 players on Belgium’s roster were on the books at clubs that competed in last season’s UEFA Champions League (if you count Julian Green, a Bayern Munich reserve, the U.S. had two), and that doesn’t include the men who turn out for the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham Hotpsur and Everton. Goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and right back Toby Alderweireld won La Liga, and nearly the Champions League, with Atlético Madrid.

Kljestan said he couldn’t put his finger on the precise reason for the Belgian renaissance, but he does have a few ideas. He recalled the visit his older brother, Gordon, paid to Brussels in 2011. A retired midfielder who bounced between MLS and the U.S. minor leagues, Gordon Kljestan now works for the L.A. Galaxy. Back in 2011, he was helping the MLS club with its youth development and spent time studying the system at Anderlecht, which produced the likes of Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany, Manchester United’s Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj and Everton (on loan from Chelsea) striker Romelu Lukaku.

“They start them young here,” Sacha Kljestan said. “The Anderlecht academy has children at under-6 and Gordon saw a group of like 10, 11, 12 year-olds, they did a thing every other day at school – most of them went to the same school – where just before lunch they took an hour and did a technical training session. And then they had their lunch and went back to class. That’s something we would never dream about doing in the U.S.”

Not every academy player attends the same school, but Anderlecht helps arrange it for those who want to, including for kids who might hail from elsewhere but choose to live with a family in Brussels.

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They have players playing multiple positions, too,” Kljestan said. “When they bring guys up to the first team that are young guys, they stick a forward out on the wing a little bit, move them around, and these guys know how to play. I think they just understand soccer. They can’t just play one – they have to have an understanding how to play multiple positions. That’s important in the learning process.”

That education helps forge chemistry at the World Cup level. No team has won the sport’s most coveted trophy without at least 10 players from its domestic league on the tournament roster. Belgium has only three. Kljestan said there may not be a “specific Belgian style of play,” but the tactical and technical training its players get from a young age helps them adapt and thrive.

“People compare Belgium and Holland because they’re right next to each other,” he said. “I think Belgium is a more organized, defensive league and I guess you can see that in their national team. I think Belgium is really well organized and their defense is really strong. That’s their most important piece.”

Belgium yielded just one goal during the first round, although no one would claim that a quartet including Algeria, Russia and South Korea was among the tournament’s toughest. It faces significant injury issues heading into Tuesday’s match with the U.S. The charismatic Kompany is questionable with a groin issue and was scheduled to train with his team Monday evening. Arsenal’s Thomas Vermaelen, an outside back, is out with a hurt hamstring and Kljestan’s Anderlecht teammate, Anthony Vanden Borre, will miss the rest of the World Cup with a fractured ankle.

“They have a ton of replacements who are really good,” Kljestan said. “I don’t think [Kompany] will miss the game. I think he’ll play through it. But whoever steps in, they still have a really good defense.”

Van Buyten will play in front of Courtois, perhaps alongside Nicolas Lombaerts (Zenit St. Petersburg), while Jan Vertonghen (Tottenham) and Alderweireld are likely starters on the flanks. Further up the field, the offense will run through midfielder Kevin De Bruyne (VfL Wolfsburg), rover Eden Hazard (Chelsea) and Lukaku, with multiple talented pieces around them.

WATCH: U.S. Players Look to Seize Moment in Round of 16 vs. Belgium

Kljestan said the U.S. was prepped during the group stage to face a dynamic attack like Belgium’s. Both Ghana and Germany were quick and mobile and the Americans handled themselves well with a plan that also might work on Tuesday.

“The best defense is defending from the inside out,” he said. “Make them keep the ball wide and obviously our strength is dealing with balls coming into the box. Whether Omar is playing or Geoff [Cameron] is playing, that’s their strong point – clearing and winning balls in the box.”

Belgium’s soft spot also may be on the flanks.

Scenic, Historic Salvador Provides Backdrop to USA’s Knockout Clash

“If there’s a weakness with Belgium, I think it’s their outside backs,” Kljestan said, adding that U.S. fullback Fabian Johnson could be critical to the U.S. attack if he’s able to find opportunities to run at the Belgian rearguard.

“He’s been great for the U.S. and I think he’ll be a factor,” in Salvador, Kljestan said.

That weakness is relative, however. Front to back, this is as strong a team as the Americans have faced under Klinsmann. What Belgium lacks in international pedigree it makes up for in week-in, week-out seasoning at the sport’s biggest clubs, not to mention sheer talent.

“[We’ve got to] stick to our game plan. We’ve been doing well, I think, defensively. We’ve been trying to contain teams. I think our football going forward has been very good [and] we need to find a way to bottle up their key players. But they have so many of them, it’ll be difficult,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, an Everton teammate of Lukaku and midfielder Kevin Mirallas.

“They’re known around Europe as just one of the up-and-coming, really hungry and talented teams. All of their players are playing at top clubs. Certain guys who are playing at top clubs can’t even get in [Belgium’s] starting lineup, because there’s other guys keeping them out. It’s a young, hungry, really fit, strong, team. They’ve got all the qualities of being great. So hopefully they won’t take flight quite yet.”

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

WATCH: SI Now: Should Altidore Play Against Belgium?

TIME World Cup

The World Cup Tactical Trend Yielding the Most Success

FIFA World Cup Brazil Netherlands-Mexico
Ron Vlaar and Stefan De Vrij of Netherlands battles with Hector Herrera of Mexico during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 29 in Fortaleza, Brazil. Laurence Griffiths—Getty Images

World Cup teams starting games with three center backs have won 11 matches

sportsillustrated

By Liviu Bird

The most interesting tactical trend at the 2014 World Cup has been an increase in nations using systems with three center backs. Teams starting matches with these systems have won 11 matches, lost three and drawn four, and all three of the losses were against teams using a similar system.

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The re-emergence of three-back systems may have been a direct response to the tiki-taka trend sparked in Spain nearly a decade ago. The Spanish system favors central overloads by the midfielders, a false No. 9 and central wingers, leaving fullbacks to provide width in attack. Systems with just two or three central midfielders end up overwhelmed, but playing one less in the back allows for an extra in midfield.

After a certain point, a central overload becomes stifling. A 5-on-2 situation is conducive to keeping the ball in tight spaces, but 5-on-5 means passing lanes disappear. That’s how the Netherlands beat Spain 5-1 in their rematch of the 2010 final to open Group B play.

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Stefan De Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi played the man-marker roles, tracking runners into midfield, while Jonathan De Guzmán and Nigel De Jong acted as destroyers in holding roles. The wingbacks recovered and pinched in to maintain a solid back line when De Vrij and Martins Indi tracked runners, and Spain couldn’t establish a rhythm in possession.

Upon regaining possession, the wingbacks bombed forward, exploiting space created by the opposition’s overlapping fullbacks. Daley Blind turned in a Man of the Match performance with two assists.

The Dutch struggled against Australia for the same reason they succeeded in the first match: their 5-3-2 is set up to counterattack, which provided the perfect antidote to Spain’s system, but it didn’t help the Oranje push the tempo against an inferior Australian side. Louis van Gaal moved to 4-3-3 in the second half to secure the victory after allowing Australia to control the tempo and expend energy in the first.

Louis van Gaal’s Methods Make the Dutch World Cup Contenders Again

Similarly, van Gaal moved to 4-3-3 after Mexico took a 1-0 lead in their round of 16 match on Sunday. Again, the system switch provided numbers in attack, and, along with the timely introduction of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Robin van Persie, was the difference in winning on two late goals. Against Mexico and Australia were the only matches in which the Oranje possessed the ball more than 50 percent of the time, at 55 and 52 percent, respectively.

In the final group match, Chile attacked for most of the game, but van Gaal’s team scored twice in the last 15 minutes to win 2-0 when La Roja tired and dropped off, much as Mexico did as a response to being up 1-0 with just 30 minutes remaining.

Chile was a perfect contrast to the Dutch with its high-pressure system based on collective work rate. In the round of 16 on Saturday, Brazil only completed 69 percent of its passes in the first 90 minutes before Jorge Sampaoli’s side ran out of gas again and played to survive extra time without losing.

In Chile, the three-back system started with Marcelo Bielsa, nicknamed “El Loco” for the radical tactical permutations he implemented with the national team. Bielsa is a theorist akin to a quantum-mechanical physicist, his strategies detailed like NASA launch code.

Sampaoli is one of many managers influenced by Bielsa. The list also includes Pep Guardiola, Gerardo Martino and Diego Simeone, whose Atlético Madrid team best resembles Sampaoli’s Chile in its defensive strategy and lethal counterattack.

Sampaoli built on Bielsa’s system, but the chief feature remains: high defensive pressure that leads to immediate vertical play upon regaining the ball. Chile doesn’t play much in the central channel in possession. Instead, the wingbacks and attackers pull wide to find space created by the Chilean defensive swarm in the middle.

The players’ work rate allows the team shape to shrink and expand rhythmically depending on the location of the ball and the match situation. The center backs pull wide when building out of the back, and all three are comfortable with the ball at their feet, also advancing into midfield. Out of possession, the entire team squeezes centrally and applies pressure.

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The difference in Chilean players’ average positions against Spain and the Netherlands shows the team’s dichotomy. Against Spain, the forward line stayed central to prevent easy play out of the back, with the wingbacks pressuring the Spanish fullbacks. Against the Dutch, Chile controlled most of the possession, necessitating a wider starting position from each player.

Against Spain, the shape could be best described as 3-4-1-2, with two holding midfielders screening the center backs and Arturo Vidal running the central channel to connect midfield and attack on both sides of the ball.

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Against the Netherlands, it was closer to 3-3-1-3, the fringe players forming a circle around the field with Charles Aránguiz and Marcelo Díaz running the middle. (Coaches with possession philosophies will immediately recognize the shape as a field-encompassing rondo.)

Chile’s downfall was the same as Simeone’s Atlético in the Champions League final. It’s extremely difficult to play at the intensity necessary for a high-pressure system for 90 minutes, let alone 120. Simeone’s team gave up a back-breaking goal in extra time and ended up losing in a landslide, and while Sampaoli’s troops never conceded that goal to Brazil, they were physically spent and had to cling to the possibility of winning in penalties, spending most of the final half-hour inside their own defensive third.

Costa Rica’s three-back system also suffocates the middle defensively, playing a box-shaped central midfield. The Ticos’ shape becomes a flat 5-4-1 when the opponent gains obvious control in its own defensive third, using visual cues to pressure in midfield.

In attack, right-sided center back Óscar Duarte pushes higher than the left side, allowing wingback Cristian Gamboa to push higher and Bryan Ruíz to tuck in from the right wing alongside Joel Campbell on the front line.

Against Italy, Andrea Pirlo was pressured immediately any time he received the ball. With two Ticos as holding midfielders, one could always step to the ball, the indented winger on each side working to support his partner.

The three-back system is engrained in Italian culture, with catenaccio taking hold in the 1980s. The diamond midfield and 4-1-4-1 formations Cesare Prandelli used in recent times also packed the middle of the field, but he played 5-4-1 in the final group match against Uruguay, intensifying the effect.

Italy started with a triangle midfield and two strikers, moving to a diamond and a lone forward after halftime. Uruguay countered with its own three-back system, but instead of adding numbers in the middle, it played with a flat line of three midfielders who limited forward ball circulation and limited service to Pirlo.

Cutting off Italy’s ability to go through the middle meant the Azzurri resorted to long, diagonal balls and crosses into the penalty area. Uruguay kept numbers back, winning every aerial duel in its own 18-yard box and limiting Italy to two successful crosses on 18 attempts.

Uniquely, Mexico’s three-back system is not about central overloads but wide isolation. Wingbacks Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layún have freedom to get forward faster, and the top points of the midfield triangle, Héctor Herrera and Andrés Guardado, pull wide to create two-on-one situations.

Brazil Survives, Outlasts Chile in Emotional, Tense Knockout Clash

The trend mostly applies on the left side, through Layún and Guardado. As the ball moves from the middle to the flank, Guardado runs wide to create the isolation. In the middle, forwards make third-man runs to exploit gaps in the opposition back line as defenders adjust.

Layún also cuts inside to combine or take long shots. At the same time, he rarely leaves the team exposed defensively. He was one of Mexico’s hardest workers this World Cup, recording the largest number of sprints in all four matches.

El Tri’s system presents a double-jeopardy situation to opponents: either defend the 2-on-1 and leave the middle open for the central midfielders and forwards to receive service, or leave the wide spaces open and allow easy combinations and crosses.

Defending and defensive-oriented tactics are alive and well among successful teams, even in a tournament of high-scoring matches and an era that has seen more goals than any before it.

The Netherlands — favored to make at least the semifinals — and Costa Rica won their groups with defense-heavy schemes, and Chile’s prowess without the ball was a perfect example of using an opponent’s possession to the defensive team’s advantage. At the same time, every team with a three-back system has provided moments of explosive offense on par with those fully engrained in the tiki-taka philosophy.

With the widespread knowledge of tactics in an age of technology and reflection, football may not see new advancements in that area. Instead, old ideas are likely to resurface and evolve to modernity through slight tweaks — man-marking center backs who can also build out of the back or teams that high pressure not just for 45 or 90 minutes at a time, but for tournaments and seasons in their entirety thanks to modern fitness training.

In a World Cup where new technologies are all the rage, whether it’s in the Brazuca, training regimens or player tracking that provides seemingly endless analytics, it’s the decades-old idea of playing three center backs that has been the most intriguing development.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

TIME World Cup

Charlie Davies Embraces Reality, Maintains Hope, While Watching USA

Charlie Davies Team USA
Charlie Davies celebrates scoring the first goal against Egypt at the FIFA Federations Cup in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 21, 2009. Michael Regan - FIFA—FIFA/Getty Images

Davies was a rising US soccer star for the 2010 World Cup team when he was severely injured in a car accident

sportsillustrated

By Ben Reiter

HINGHAM, Mass. – Of course he still thinks about the decision he made on that October night in Washington, D.C., four and a half years ago. How could he not? He was 23 years old then and a budding star, a striker who had already used his world-class speed to score and contribute to goals of a quality that seemed new for the U.S. national team.

There was the blitzkrieg two-man counterattack, in which he delivered a perfect cross to Landon Donovan for the finish, against Brazil in the 2009 Confederations Cup final. There was his strike against Mexico, in a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, two months later. The following summer, he was certain to start up front with his close friend, Jozy Altidore. The two seemed sure to form a formidable speed and power combination, and to repeatedly perform their celebratory Stanky Leg dance, not just in that World Cup in South Africa but in how many to come? Two? Three? More?

USA’s chaotic group stretch ends with win-feeling loss and knockout berth

“Sometimes I think about how I went into a 50-50 challenge against Ramires, of Chelsea, when we played Brazil,” Charlie Davies says. “And I’m beasting him, running by him, running by Lucio, running by these world-class players. And I’m thinking, what happened to me?”

He knows what happened, even if he doesn’t recall much of it. He got into a car after 3 a.m. with two women he didn’t know, and whom, he says, he didn’t know were drunk. He clicked in his seatbelt. The next thing he remembers, he was lying in a hospital bed believing that he was still in Honduras, where the U.S. had days before clinched their World Cup berth. He looked down at the 36 staples in his abdomen and thought that he had been kidnapped by organ harvesters. His first instinct was to use his speed to run away, before they got anything else, but he couldn’t run, not with a broken tibia and femur, a fractured elbow, a lacerated bladder, bleeding on the brain and a smashed-in face.

He should have died. The other passenger did, as the car was sheared in half when it struck a guardrail on the George Washington Parkway in the Washington, D.C., area. Somehow he survived, but his life was forever changed by a decision that, as poor as it was, likely would have turned out fine most of the time, except that time it didn’t. Perhaps Davies would by now be playing for his beloved Arsenal. Tottenham and Everton were already scouting him, before his accident. Perhaps he’d already have produced a reel full of World Cup highlights.

“I feel like 2010 would’ve really been my breakout, and that this World Cup would have been the one in which I would have really made a difference,” he says.

But Davies wasn’t on the field in Brazil for the national team as it faced Germany on Thursday, with an entry into the knockout stage in the offing, and he wasn’t on the bench either. Instead, he watched the game from his three-story townhouse in this Boston suburb – some 4,100 miles north of Recife – on a couch with his wife, Nina, an assistant fashion stylist; his younger brother, Justin, a soccer coach and administrator at Northeastern; and his dog, a Maltese named Nala. He wore an old national team jersey of his, a white one, and Nina wore a blue one. She hadn’t realized, when she had put it on, that it was his jersey from the Honduras game, which was the very last one in which he played for the United States.

Watching the U.S. play was painful for Davies in the summer of 2010. He emerged from the hospital with the goal of regaining his spot on the team, but his French club team, Sochaux, wouldn’t medically clear him for Bob Bradley’s camp, and he now admits that even then it would have been far beyond his still broken body anyway. Even so, he took in every game on TV, and when the team called him from its riotous locker room after a miraculous stoppage-time goal by Donovan against Algeria sent it through to the knockout rounds, he felt like he was still a part of it. Later, Donovan would tell him that had he been healthy and paired with Altidore, there was no way that they would have been knocked out by Ghana.

His doctors and therapists marveled at how quickly he reached a baseline level of recovery, with a damaged brain and a body so filled with metal – in his legs and in his face, the skin of which surgeons had to peel back so they could reconstruct its fine bones – that he frequently set off airport detectors (He was once pulled into a back room by the TSA in Miami and forced to strip). He had to relearn how to walk, how to dress himself, how to eat, how to talk. He did it fast, and he thought that regaining his soccer form would come next.

That proved a different sort of challenge. He returned to training with Sochaux in April of 2010, just six months after the accident, and he realized he wasn’t the same.

“What I had hoped for and expected, it was just kind of gone,” he says. He didn’t have the speed, he couldn’t hold off defenders. He would try to perform his favorite move – fake left, go right – but his body refused to do what his mind wanted it to. He’d spend possession drills hiding in a corner of the field, praying no one would pass him the ball, and he would hear his teammates asking each other, in French, why he was on the field with them at all.

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He fought his body for the next four years, as he bounced from Sochaux to D.C. United and back, and then to Randers, in the Danish league. He had his moments – he scored 11 goals for D.C. in 2011 – but things always ended badly. His form kept deserting him, along with his confidence. His body kept betraying him.

Last August, he was loaned back to Major League Soccer, to the New England Revolution. By February, with a new season about to begin, he felt certain that he was finally all the way back. His legs were as strong as ever, and his coach, Jay Heaps, said that he was the fastest player on the team. He started to dream that he might receive a call from Jurgen Klinsmann.

“I know I’ll succeed when I play, which is something I haven’t felt for a long time,” he said then. “If I start off with eight to 10 goals in the first quarter of the MLS season, why not think there’s a chance for me to get into the World Cup camp? It’s not like there’s an abundance of proven goal scorers on the national team.”

Then, though, he felt a twinge in his calf, a recurring strain that would put an end to that idea – and one that might be a lingering effect of the accident, which left his right leg an inch and a half shorter than his left, and tilted slightly outward. His MLS season with the Revolution has so far consisted of three substitute appearances totaling 91 minutes, although he did return to the field this week after a lengthy absence. It was 30 minutes against the USL Pro’s Rochester Rhinos in the U.S. Open Cup, however, a tournament some rungs down from the ongoing one in Brazil.

Although he finds himself imagining the runs he would make and the shots he would fire were he playing in this World Cup, he has found the experience of watching it to be easier than last time.

“At this point, I feel like more of a fan,” he says. “I’ve really enjoyed watching every single game. I’m so supportive of the U.S. team. I don’t have any resentment that I’m not there.”

As the U.S. prepared to play Germany on Thursday, with its Group of Death fate still in the balance, Davies had an idea as to how they would go about things, even as many members of the soccer cognoscenti theorized that Klinsmann and his old protégé, German coach Joachim Löw, would conspire for a gentleman’s draw. A tie would send both teams through; a defeat could mean that the loser might be knocked out, depending on what happened in the concurrent Ghana-Portugal match.

“You approach the game knowing obviously that a point, a draw, and you go through,” he said. “But if you play like that, sit back and let Germany come at you, eventually they’re going to score. So you want to play for the win. The key is not taking unnecessary risks. Do I take this ball and run down the line when there’s not many people with me, and put the team in a bad position? You don’t do that. This is a time you have to be secure and safe, always make the safe play.

“My prediction,” Davies continued, “is that we advance. Whether they draw, win, lose, I think it’s going to be enough.”

There was one German who concerned him more than any other. “Thomas Müller,” he said, of Die Mannschaft’s 24-year-old striker. “His movement is so dangerous. He’s the kind of guy, he gets a chance and he scores.”

The U.S. followed Davies’ script through the first half, playing it safe and weathering an early series of furious German attacks to keep the game scoreless. It was clear, though, that no détente had been reached between the coaches, and in the 55th minute the Germans broke through. It came, as Davies had predicted, on a thundering strike from Müller.

“Knew it,” Davies said. “That’s as good as it gets on a finish. We need to make a substitution – take out Brad Davis, our midfielder, probably, and put in somebody with more pace. I’m looking for Alejandro Bedoya.”

Four minutes later, Bedoya trotted onto the field, replacing Davis. By then, Ghana had leveled the score of its match with Portugal at 1-1, and the situation was fraught. One more unanswered goal by Ghana would doom the U.S. on goal differential.

That had Davies thinking of other another substitution to which Klinsmann might have turned, in an alternate reality. He’d thought about the same thing when the game was tight against Portugal.

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“Of course I think about it,” he said. “You’re just like, man, if I had the chance, I think I could do well. Last game, for instance, against Portugal, the game really opened up. Portugal was pushing for a goal, and Klinsmann brought on Chris Wondolowski and DeAndre Yedlin. They did fantastic, for what they were asked to do. But I just know that in that certain situation – and in this one against Germany too – I think I would have really taken off just because of what the game needed, which was a striker who could hold up the ball. Maybe with my speed I could create some go-ahead chances and maybe gotten the goal that would have put things out of reach.”

Davies also thought of another name Klinsmann might have called: that of Landon Donovan, whom he shockingly left off the roster.

“It’s sad, really,” Davies said. “Everyone knows what a career he’s had, but he could still make a difference, still impact the game. For him to not be one of the 23 guys, as a fan, as a friend of his, you want to see him take part in the World Cup. Absolutely, I think he could have helped here. He’s a perfect substitution.”

It wasn’t long, though, before the U.S. got the help it needed from an unlikely ally. Cristiano Ronaldo, whose last-minute cross on Sunday turned a certain U.S. win into a draw, put Portugal ahead 2-1 over Ghana in the 80th minute, all but clinching advancement for the Americans.

“I think his knee’s really bothering him, and that he’s in a lot of pain,” Davies said, of the slick-haired superstar. “I don’t feel like he’s got a lot of movement in these games. But he’s done whatever’s necessary – and he’s so talented that when it matters, he can still get it done, despite it all.”

Soon, the U.S. team was celebrating on the field in Recife. In Hingham, Davies and his wife and brother were politely clapping, as the dog jumped around, startled. It was time to focus on the future.

“I think we’ll beat Belgium,” Davies said, of the U.S.’s next opponent. “Who would we have after that?” On cue, the draw flashed on the television: Argentina, most likely. Davies inhaled. “Realistically, I’d say we get to the quarterfinals,” he said. “Hope we get further.”

It was also time to think about what might come next for him. He knows how easy it is to imagine what his career would have been like if he had not gotten into that car on that night in D.C. “Would mine and Jozy’s partnership have been talked about worldwide, for 10 years?” But he also knows, as well as anyone, how life has a way of upending expectations.

Altidore’s 2014 World Cup, after all, lasted 21 minutes, before he was felled by a badly strained hamstring in his team’s opening match against Ghana.

“We texted, and he was definitely down,” Davies said. “He felt like this was going to be the World Cup to launch him to that next level. I think everyone thought that was a strong possibility, due to the fact that he was coming into form at the right time, and that this formation really caters to him.”

Davies’s hope of partnering with Altidore on the world’s biggest stage is not over. He is already looking to 2018, in Russia.

“I’ll be 31,” he says. “That’s the goal. I’d be fine with just that.”

He also dreams of playing under Klinsmann.

“I think he’d be a fantastic coach for me,” he says. “One of the best strikers in the world, and a guy that I’d learn a lot from and is always giving you constant support.”

He knows that he has a long way to go – years of playing consistently well, at a high level. He is reminded of that every time he looks into the mirror and sees a body and a scalp cut with scars, and chipped teeth, and a face that is different from the one that he used to have, before it was rebuilt. He used to look like his brother; he doesn’t anymore. “I think he looks cuter than ever now,” says Nina.

Most of the time, Davies focuses not on what he doesn’t have, but on what he does. His wife, whom he met in Christian theology class during their freshman year at Boston College, and who stuck with him and supported him through it all. His family. His house. His dog. His career in professional soccer, which retains so much potential.

“There’s nothing I want that I don’t already have, and I’m not so sure what happened wasn’t for the best,” he says. “I’m a different person, a better person for it. I feel like I’ve aged 15 years through this experience. I’m much more emotional now. I never used to cry, and now I’ll just cry watching something sad.

“I’m alive still,” he continues. “I wake up happy every day. I’m happier than I’ve ever been, because I can appreciate everything that much more. I don’t take anything for granted, whether it’s the taste of food, being able to go to the movies.”

A life, really, is an endless series of decisions. Sometimes the decisions that seem big end up having little impact. Sometimes the ones that seem small change everything. You take one section of Christian theology over another, and you meet someone. You accept an offer of a ride back to a team hotel from a stranger, and you don’t make it.

Charlie Davies’ decision in the early morning hours of Oct. 13, 2009, sent his life careening off course, and it took U.S. Soccer and its fans with it. One day, perhaps in Russia, he might again play, and play well, for his country. He believes that it will happen. If it doesn’t? If the national team jersey that his wife wore on Thursday ultimately proves the last to ever bear his name? He will be fine with that, too.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

TIME World Cup

Jermaine Jones, USA’s ‘Fighting Pig,’ Wins Over His World Cup Critics

Jermaine Jones USA World Cup
US midfielder Jermaine Jones reacts during a training session in Sao Paulo on June 19 as part of the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil. BEHROUZ MEHRI—AFP/Getty Images

The German-born Jones scored against Portugal on Sunday

sportsillustrated

SAO PAULO – Recently regarded by so many as a yellow (or red) card in waiting or, more cynically, as the mercenary using the U.S. national team to satisfy World Cup dreams that stalled in his native country, Jermaine Jones now can feel the love.

The tattooed enforcer laughed Tuesday morning as he described the seal of approval he received from Alex Morgan, the high-scoring, telegenic Californian who’s emerged as U.S. soccer’s newest poster girl.

“She’s running around with the 13 too, and she makes ‘Jones’,” he exclaimed.

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Morgan, the women’s national team star who shares a number with the German-born midfielder, posted a photo on Sunday of a red U.S. jersey with ‘JONES’ written on the white tape that obscured her own last name.It quickly became obvious why Morgan was such a fan. Jones took the field in Manaus, Brazil, a few hours later and put together yet another outstanding World Cup performance.

The highlight was the stunning second-half goal that pulled the U.S. even with Portugal. The 25-yard curler that beat Beto to the far post will make every World Cup highlight video. But Jones also played a critical role in helping the Americans establish midfield dominance and contain Cristiano Ronaldo. The FIFA World Player of the Year was quiet until the fifth minute of stoppage time, when he delivered a pinpoint cross that forced the U.S. into a 2-2 draw.

But that gut-wrenching ending failed to diminish Jones’ contribution. He covered a ton of ground, was well positioned and helped the U.S. carry the game for significant stretches. He also was efficient with the ball and effective on the dribble. Jones completed the vast majority of his passes in the attacking half.

And yes, there was a yellow card. But it was only his second in a U.S. shirt over the past year and a half. It turns out that Jones isn’t inevitably reckless. He can be smart and patient with the ball. He’ll defend and defer. In short, he’s checked all the boxes that many feared he couldn’t, and he’s been one of the two or three most consistently effective Americans at this wild World Cup.

Fans have noticed, and Jones has noticed them.

Imports of Importance: The German influence on the U.S. World Cup team

“It’s always funny, when you go on the pitch and you make your work, sometimes not the right feedback comes back. You feel a little bit like…” Jones said, searching for the right word before twisting his face in an expression of disgust and disappointment.

“The people talk. ‘You always kick the guys. You’re the bad boy.’ Sometimes it’s crazy,” he continued. “But for me, it was always the point I was saying, ‘OK, I have to work. I have to work. I will show the people.’ Now, it’s the point you play a World Cup, you play against the best player and you can show your best.”

He’s done so. Against Ghana, he played on the left rather than centrally and won a load of headers and tackles. He also had the assist on Clint Dempsey’s first-minute opener. Jones said he’s having “fun on the pitchandhe appreciates the fact that U.S. fans now appreciate him.

“Everything is good and I hope the people support. Right now, they give me a lot back. They tweet a lot. They text me,” Jones said.

That acclaim was hard won. Although Jones earned his first U.S. cap under former coach Bob Bradley, it was his more permanent presence under Jurgen Klinsmann that rankled. Jones was uneven and unpredictable and often appeared like he was trying to do too much. The tackles were too hard, the passes too ambitious and the chemistry with Michael Bradley was uneven.

Jones was a long-time fixture at German power Schalke 04 and a UEFA Champions League regular, which Klinsmann often cited as a primary reason for the midfielder’sinclusion. But in the U.S., the week-in-, week-out rhythm of playing at the highest level was overshadowed by the frequent yellow cards and a few high-profile disciplinary issues, like the eight-week suspension in January 2012 for stomping on an opponent’s injured foot or the four-game ban the following December that followed his club-record fifth red card.

Schalke fans respected his effort, calling him kampfschwein, or “fighting pig,” because of his pugnacious approach and a jersey that never stayed clean. But in the U.S., where there was some sensitivity over Klinsmann’s recruitment and apparent reliance on foreign-born players, Jones just seemed a bit too foreign.

Klinsmann maintained his faith.

What Will USA’s Strategy Against Germany Be?

“When they have the opportunity to play in Champions League, which is the crème de la crème, the top level you can play at in a club system, you want them to take that experience, and take that attitude, and take that desire and bring it back into the national team environment,” the manager said last year. “Jermaine is a guy that never stops. He’s always ready for the next step and the next challenge. He never shies away. His inner drive is unbelievable and this is what you need when they come into our environment. They have to adjust in different ways. CONCACAF is a very different tournament for him or any European-based player. They have to switch mindsets a little bit but you need their leadership, you need their experience and then hopefully they influence the atmosphere within your team.”

And Jones repaid that faith. He‘s come to consider himself as much American as German. He lived in Chicago and Mississippi as a child, owned a house in Los Angeles and even named one of his five children Keanu. But there was more to do. Klinsmann wanted Jones to be a leader, not only because of his experience but because it would challenge him to hone his game and compete for the sake of the collective.

Jermaine Jones Team USA
Jermaine Jones, left, celebrates with DaMarcus Beasley, right, after Jones scores USA’s first goal in World Cup match against Portugal in Manaus, Brazil, on June 22. Marcio Jose Sanchez—AP

Jones embraced the more conservative midfield role he’s been asked to assume over the past few months (his contribution to the attack in Brazil has been a nice irony), proving that he can thrive amid structure. During the national team’s pre-World Cup camp at Stanford University, Jones approached U.S. Soccer’s communications staff and told them that he wished to make himself more available to the American press corps in Brazil. He’d been reluctant to do so before, in large part because he was anxious about his language skills. But Jones understood that being a spokesman, both internally and externally, is part of being a leader.

“I think it’s important too that we have some guys that have to step on and have to take the team and push the team,” he said after arriving in Sao Paulo. “For me, it’s the first World Cup and I want to try to win all these games that we play. I hate to lose. In my eyes I [am] like Timmy [Howard], Clint [Dempsey], Michael [Bradley], Jozy [Altidore] when we see that the team is maybe in a bad mood or you see that some guys feel a little bit down, you have to take them and push them onward. You have only one chance to win your games, and we need everybody, so that’s the point why we have to push everybody.”

He’s thrown himself into it like a true kampfschwein and has been a big part of the soundtrack of this World Cup. His syntax can get creative, but he always makes his point, and he’s got a sense of humor that belies his image. He’s joked about Portuguese midfielder Raul Meireles’ tattoos and called Bradley his “brother from the other mother.” He’s thrown light, good-natured jabs at Howard for sleeping through the World Cup opener and Kyle Beckerman for his reserved demeanor.

MLS players’ World Cup showing worthy of praise amid much scrutiny

“It’s been obvious for us that he’s fully bought into it,” said midfielder Graham Zusi, who’s assisted two of the Americans’ four World Cup goals. “I think that might have been the question before, but it’s obvious to us and I think it’s obvious to everyone now that he’s fully involved. He’s got his head into this and his style of play, it’s different, but it’s something that we need as a team.”

As for the locker room chemistry between Jones and his fellow foreign-born players and the rest of the squad, Zusi called it a “process” with an ideal outcome.

“The guys have integrated very well,” the Sporting Kansas City star said. “The team has really connected and bonded and there’s no cliques. There’s no segregation by any means. It’s just a great group to be a part of.”

On Thursday afternoon in Recife, an oceanfront city on Brazil’s northeast coast, Jones will take the field in a match that seemed fated. His two homelands, the U.S. and Germany, will meet with first place in Group G at stake. Both will advance to the knockout stage with a draw (Germany would win the group), but both also could be eliminated on goal differential with a loss and an unfavorable result in the concurrent Ghana-Portugal match in Brasilia.

The stakes are high enough, but Jones’ ties to both nations adds additional emotion and depth. He played three times for Germany before switching to the U.S. and nearly made the team that won the silver medal at the 2008 European Championship.

“I always say that I’m proud of both countries,” Jones said. “I grew up in Germany and they gave me a lot. That’s where I had my first steps. I played there my first games in my first leagues. I played for Germany so, I can’t say bad stuff … But, I am still proud too when I hear the anthem from the United States. I will close my eyes and let it all go through and then will play my game.”

On Thursday, there should be no doubts that he’ll be all in. This is likely to be the 32-year-old’s only World Cup, and he’s playing as much for the U.S. as he is for himself. He reconnected with his father, a former U.S. serviceman, six years ago and now has deeper ties with the American side of his family.

A few months ago while in Turkey with his new club, Besiktas, Jones got inked with a large Stars and Stripes tattoo on his knee. The new body art is on his left leg, the one he planted firmly in the Arena da Amazônia field when he unleashed that shot against Portugal. The U.S. is a huge part of Jones’ foundation, and he’s excited to a big part of its national team’s.

Thursday’s game is about America’s World Cup future, not his German past.

“For this game against Germany we say – the whole team – we say we want to play a good game and it’s not the point to beat a friend or something. It’s the point to come to the next round. This is the important stuff,” Jones said. “We want to go there and we want to go show the people that we can battle and we can beat them, the German team.”

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

Viagem Brazil: Experiencing the World Cup from the Other Side of the Divide

TIME World Cup

How the USA Let its Golden World Cup Chance Slip Away

World Cup: USA v. Portugal
Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo jumps for the ball during a World Cup match against Team USA on June 22. FABRICE COFFRINI—AFP/Getty Images

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo broke free from Team USA's defense to assist a goal in the last minute of play

sportsillustrated

The United States had its foot on the throat of a depleted Portugal in the waning seconds on Sunday, but was forced to come away with a 2-2 draw, putting any knockout stage celebrations on hold. Unlike in its first group match against Ghana, the U.S. looked like a deserved winner, but individual errors snowballed into two points lost.

As has become standard under Jürgen Klinsmann, the U.S. played a four- or five-man midfield with a one- or two-forward set, depending on the situation. The formation could be called either 4-2-3-1, 4-3-2-1 or, mostly out of possession, 4-4-1-1.

USA Eyes Bigger Picture After Letting World Cup Chance Slip vs. Portugal

Portugal stuck to a 4-3-3, with Cristiano Ronaldo floating dangerously between the left flank and central attacking spaces. Portugal had a sliver more of the ball numerically but struggled in attack and was exposed several times on its left.

Manager Paulo Bento never sorted out the problem created as Ronaldo stayed high, leaving room for Fabian Johnson to overlap. André Almeida started at left back, but Bento moved Miguel Veloso into the spot at the start of the second half, which proved to be a poor decision, as the U.S. attacked him and backtracking Raul Meireles.

Portugal struggled to find any rhythm with the ball, and Ronaldo never got comfortable. The U.S. kept enough numbers back to limit the Ballon d’Or winner to sporadic moments of 1-on-1 isolation, and without Portugal able to counterattack, the U.S. looked in control for the second half despite conceding very early in the match and absorbing pressure the first period.

USA Has No Intention of Playing for Draw in Group Finale vs. Germany

Both American goals started on the right flank, one on a corner, and Johnson was their best player. His runs going forward were timed well, as he read the play to ensure a midfielder would be facing forward on the ball and able to provide a pass breaking Portugal’s high line of confrontation.

Graham Zusi tucked inside to give Johnson space to overlap and create 2-on-1 and 2-on-2 opportunities against Portugal’s left-sided players. The trouble in the first half was, when Johnson got forward, he didn’t have support or make the right decisions on the ball to develop it.

Despite holding a high line with its wingers and target striker, Portugal fell back quickly once the initial pressure was breached, inviting the U.S. to throw numbers forward. Part of the ploy was to give the Seleção a chance to counter, but the Americans were so cautious that they often ended up with no attacking capabilities.

Johnson would drive at defenders with the ball at his feet instead of staying patient to allow others to join him. With limited attackers to concern them, Portugal pressured and won the ball easily in its back half.

USA Rues Missed World Cup Opportunity

Michael Bradley’s shot saved off the goal line by Ricardo Costa in the 55th minute was the U.S.’s best look besides its goals. On that play, the U.S. had one more player in attack, but the location of the cross made the difference.

Instead of cutting inside prematurely, Johnson carried the ball to the endline and cut it back to Bradley on the ground. This is the most dangerous attacking situation in football because of the options it provides the attack and chaos it creates for the defense. It allows forwards to get in front of goal and midfielders to make late runs, the kind Bradley makes in his best attacking moments.

Goalkeeper Beto engaged Johnson, who blew past Meireles. The defenders retreated, leaving a gap between them and the recovering midfielders. They had to face the goal, meaning a cross could easily hit a defender and result in an own goal. If not, the receiving attacker (Bradley) would be facing forward with the ball at his feet and a gaping net in front of him.

Chicago Reacts to the Dramatic USA-Portugal Draw

It was a bad miss as much as it was a good block from Costa, as he couldn’t cover the entire 192 square feet of net. Bradley smacked his shot right into the defender, but it was obvious where Portugal was most vulnerable — and how.

With Klinsmann’s introduction of DeAndre Yedlin in the 72nd minute, the U.S. took more control and pushed forward on the back of Jermaine Jones’ stunning goal in the 64th. It was a positive, attacking substitution (the first Klinsmann had the opportunity to make this tournament, as his hand wasn’t forced due to injury as against Ghana) that provided the go-ahead goal late.

Bringing Yedlin on as a midfielder instead of a fullback, as Klinsmann was rumored to be ready to do heading into the World Cup, is something Seattle Sounders manager Sigi Schmid could adopt. Yedlin’s individual defending is his weakness, but putting him in the middle block compensated for that and magnified his assets (a willingness to bomb forward with his natural speed).

World Cup Advancement Scenarios for Each Group

On the play that led to Clint Dempsey’s goal, Yedlin and Johnson both got down the line and into the penalty area (by the time the ball popped out to Zusi, Johnson was lingering on the opposite edge). The midfield cover came slowly, and when it did, it was just William tracking back.

The U.S. looked fitter than Portugal all night, never more apparent than in the midfielders’ lack of backtracking when out of possession. By the time Zusi crossed to Dempsey on the U.S.’s 81st-minute goal, no more numbers had fallen back to support a defensive line that was again facing its own goal and — for once — outnumbered.

Ronaldo hardly set foot in his own half of the field, and he only had momentary isolation points. These flashes of brilliance showed that a Ronaldo at less than 100 percent health is still a dangerous opponent, but his supporting cast didn’t have the same quality.

Portugal focused its efforts on the flanks, but its crossing was no better than Ghana’s on Monday except for Ronaldo’s late effort. Looking for balls into the box played into the U.S.’s athletic strengths. Portugal capitalized just once on Ronaldo’s ability, as he sent an inch-perfect cross for Silvestre Varela to head home in the fifth minute of stoppage time.

The U.S.’s weaknesses continue to be technique and intelligence. Portugal’s first goal came from the former, Geoff Cameron’s scuffed clearance on Nani’s opener being one of several weak efforts in similar situations, while the equalizer with the last kick of the match came largely from the latter.

Bradley gave possession away cheaply in midfield after bringing down a bouncing ball under no pressure. The U.S. looked unbalanced in the back, at least partly as a result of the giveaway.

Omar González and Kyle Beckerman both failed to close down Nani before he completed the wide pass to Ronaldo, despite González having fresh legs and Beckerman being in a spot to provide easy cover. Beasley couldn’t dive into a tackle on Ronaldo and risk being left for dead, so he stood the attacker up and forced him to serve the ball into the penalty area.

Ronaldo picked the perfect pass after looking up to see a 3-on-2 advantage at the back post. Yedlin, the right winger, never tracked back from losing the ball in the corner. He was higher than the lone striker, Chris Wondolowski, when the goal was scored.

Johnson recovered but still allowed Varela’s run behind Cameron, who looked unaware that the attacker was there. Cameron’s body shape was closed off from the back post, so he couldn’t know Varela was there without proper communication.

That series of individual errors and one at the start of the match negated Klinsmann’s superior tactical set-up. The U.S. should have beaten Portugal, but Cameron and Bradley’s errors lost the team two crucial points.

World Cup USA Fans Chicago
Chicagoans gather in Grant Park to watch the United States take on Portugal in a World Cup match on June 22. Timothy Hiatt—Getty Images

Bradley has struggled since Klinsmann moved him out of the holding block and into a playmaking role. The manager has to bear the blame for shoehorning players into positions inappropriate to their strengths, Bradley being chief among them.

At the same time, for a player as important as he is to the cause, he should know kicking it to the moon (the ball or the opponent, to stop the counterattack) would be preferable in that late situation.

So instead of six points after two games, the U.S. sits on four. It’s a disappointing prospect to face Germany and need a result when it could have been a much less stressful game, but the fact that the U.S. has a chance at all in the final game of Group G remains impressive.

This article originally appeared on SI.com.

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