There is a seemingly bottomless supply of articles making the superficial observation that there are a lot of Germans on the U.S. team (which is coached by a German, in case you've been living under a Martian rock with your fingers in your ears).
These German-Americans have been major contributors, with Jermaine Jones scoring a key goal against Portugal and Fabian Johnson one of the team's most dangerous players going forward. Plus, the quintessential 23rd man, John Brooks, somehow scored the winning goal against Ghana. All three are part of the German-American contingent, two of whom were recruited by Klinsmann (Jones was first introduced to the squad by Klinsmann's predecessor, Bob Bradley). But let's not forget there are some non-Germans who have made essential contributions to a team that has already made this World Cup a success.
As many expected prior to the tournament, it all starts with Michael Bradley, the midfield's linchpin. Many have been quick to criticize Bradley for not producing offensively, but he has been virtually omnipresent, running more than any other player in the tournament through the group stage and almost a mile further than the next greatest distance, Marcelo Diaz of Chile. Although his touch has failed him at times and some of his passes have been uncharacteristically off the mark, he's played a pivotal role that no other American could fill.
Likewise, Bradley's midfield partner Kyle Beckerman has picked a good time to play the games of his life. Although he doesn't go quite as far forward as Bradley, Beckerman is far more active defensively and plays a key role in containing counterattacks. (It may come as a surprise to some, but Beckerman covered the 14th greatest distance of any player in the group stage, the majority of which came when the U.S. didn't have possession.) Throughout qualifying, Jermaine Jones played a similar role to Beckerman's World Cup position, restricting his offensive output which, as we've seen, can be quite lethal. With Beckerman filling that role, Jones has more freedom to play both sides of the ball.
Notice where Bradley and Beckerman are positioned as compared to Jones and Johnson on these influence charts for the three group stage games:
Images courtesy of FourFourTwo
Each match, Bradley and Beckerman are nearly on top of each other in the center of the park because they move with the ball. This allows Jones and the fullbacks, DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson, to go forward more than one might expect (although, it should be said Jones helps out plenty in defense, running only .49 miles less than Beckerman over the first three matches).
Prior to the tournament, Klinsmann de-emphasized the importance of formations and tactics, saying, "I think we need to go away from the system discussion. It doesn't get you anywhere. Years ago it was all down to the No. 10 to make things happen, but now maybe it's the No. 6 that makes things happen, or the fullbacks make things happen." What are important, according to Klinsmann, are responsibilities, roles and how the players complement each other. It's no secret by now that Johnson and Jones are the surprises of the group stage from an American standpoint, but this is only the case because Bradley and Beckerman allow them to be.
Not to take anything away from Jones or Johnson, but this is how good soccer teams work: nearly every player could be lauded as occupying an underappreciated role. Historically, the United States has relied on two or three players to function, a recipe for disappointment in short tournaments, especially ones with knockout games. When everything relies on a player or two, the game plan will invariably demand precision and near-perfect execution time and again. These types of teams are cheap knockoff watches, ticking to an unsustainable beat. Inevitably, something will break.
This is not how Klinsmann's team works, and that's precisely the reason why they were able to make it out of the Group of Death. As Bradley's critics have been quick to point out, he has missed wide open chances and bungled simple passes. But the more players there are that are capable of bearing some of the load, the less these mistakes will matter. Enter Jones with his other-worldly curling shot, Fabian Johnson's speedy runs and even Brooks' well-placed head.
This is how it works everywhere on the field. Geoff Cameron, who many believed was the established centerback along with Matt Besler, was benched for the Germany game because of his critical mistakes leading to both Portugal goals. Again, this is where Jones' freedom to move forward proved vital, as he was able to score the golazo to negate one of Cameron's mistakes. Against Germany, Omar Gonzalez -- who a year ago would have been the odds-on favorite to start during the World Cup -- was extremely effective in Cameron's starting spot, making key clearances while assuaging some concerns about his potential for defensive lapses. Gonzalez played his best game as an American after the regular starter played one of his worst.
This is what a team looks like: players complementing one another and compensating for mistakes. Americans shouldn't be focusing on Bradley's difficulties or Dempsey's ineffectiveness in the last 269 minutes, but the fact that contributions are coming from elsewhere. Past U.S. teams could never have made it out of a similarly difficult group with these kinds of performances from their stars. As it turns out, the U.S. didn't need that to make it out of the Group of Death this time around. Despite all the talk about the small margin for error in Group G, there actually was quite a big one. The final minute goal against Portugal could have been a death blow, but it wasn't. Losing to Germany could have knocked them out, but it didn't.
There has been more room for mistakes than anyone expected because Portugal and Ghana simply didn't play as well as the United States. Portugal was too reliant on a few key players, a kind of supercharged U.S. team of old. Ghana was their normal wildly inconsistent selves, scattering 150 world-class minutes among the 270 minutes of group play. In the end, the U.S. were the second-best team in the group. No miracles, no last-second heroics, just good soccer. Everything adds up, everything makes sense.
Americans might have to come to terms with the fact that this is a good soccer team doing what good soccer teams do. This isn't to say they've already won the World Cup, but perhaps for the first time, winning doesn't feel like the Soccer Gods forgot to carry the one.