Charles Boehm is covering the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist from Brazil for the duration of the tournament. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.
RECIFE, Brazil - Arena Pernambuco sits more than 20 kilometers inland from downtown Recife, ringed by thick tropical foliage and humble rural villages. Another brand-new facility purpose-built for the World Cup, it's beautiful, but confoundingly isolated.
This is where the U.S. national team face off against three-time World Cup winners Germany at lunchtime on Thursday. They hope to make this spot synonymous with guts and glory—or at the very least, avoidance of disaster—as they seek to navigate into the tournament's round of 16 with a positive result against their head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's homeland.
“It's just a wonderful moment now to enjoy, when you get to a World Cup and you get the chance to play your former team. And you get a chance at that stage to move into the knockout stage against one of the big favorites of the tournament here,” said Klinsmann in Wednesday's pregame press conference.
“I think some people might be a little bit surprised about our results so far,” added the man who led Germany to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup as a coach and won the whole thing as their star striker in 1990. “We are not. We are now by no means any underdog here at this tournament, but we know it's the biggest hurdle we have to take now, with Germany. And we are looking forward to it.”
Both the U.S. and Germany can advance with a draw, a scenario that has engendered no end of suspicion and speculation in the media thanks in large part to Klinsmann's ties to Thursday's opponent. But on Wednesday he once again affirmed his full commitment to chasing victory.
“We are very well capable to beat Germany, and we know that,” he said. “Without being too overconfident, without being too positive, it's possible, it's doable. As you've seen this World Cup, it's full of surprises.
“We want to be one of those surprises.”
Germany were held to a 2-2 draw by Ghana in their last match, a result which was somewhat problematic for the U.S. as it leaves all four Group G teams still mathematically in contention for - and none assured of - a spot in the next stage. Germany can't coast here, because while it's highly unlikely, a loss to the Yanks combined with a lopsided victory in the group's other game between Ghana and Portugal could conceivably send them home. (Similarly, the U.S. could still slip through with a narrow loss, but don't really want to fathom that route.)
With the United States given a day's less rest than Germany this week, the unsettling combination of tired legs and a motivated, domineering adversary - the Germans sit at No. 2 in the current FIFA World Rankings - makes this a daunting test for the Americans by any measure.
“They're a part of the three or four big teams in this World Cup [able] to win it, to go all the way to the end,” said Klinsmann. “They have the potential, they have a team capable of doing it. We don't claim that for us. We want to be a team that goes from game to game, and learn and grow and get results too.”
It appears to be the perfect moment for a dose of Klinsmann's famed confidence and optimism. U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati hailed this particular aspect of the German-American's appeal in a round-table conversation with members of the media on Wednesday afternoon, and his players took further heart from the bold, brave approach of Germany's last opponents.
“I think Ghana gave us a great example, they were not intimidated. They tried to play aggressively,” U.S. fullback Fabian Johnson, one of five dual-eligible German-Americans on Klinsmann's roster, told the media in German on Wednesday.
“There's absolutely no reason for us to be afraid.”
Unfortunately for Johnson and his teammates, outside observers see several. Beyond Germany's statistical superiority, the U.S. will take the field less than 80 hours after Sunday's intensely emotional, draining 2-2 draw with Portugal in Manaus, and thus far every team that has played in the Amazon venue has lost their next match.
Klinsmann's squad flew back south to their home base in Sao Paulo immediately after that game, which returned them to a familiar, and cooler, environment. But it also added several hours of flight time to their schedule. (They flew back north to Recife on Wednesday afternoon.)
The hope is that the program's commitment to advanced sports science recovery techniques will have the players ready for another huge contest in taxing tropical conditions. Klinsmann may also address the issue by mixing a few pairs of fresh legs into his starting lineup.
“I don't think it's really bothering us right now,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman on the topic of fatigue. “This is the biggest game of a lot of our lives. Any fatigue in our legs would be erased. We've got to give everything we got and more. We've done proper stuff to recover our legs, so we don't see the short rest as harmful to us at all.”