Like you, fellow USA fans, I was disappointed by the last-second goal Portugal scored against us, leaving us with a tie instead of a win (which would have put us through to the next round of the World Cup). However, after the whistle blew, I was able to think through the positions, point totals and incentives facing all four teams and I recognize that we’re in a fantastic position; a position that is far better than we could have expected our team to be in at this juncture of the tournament.
Always in soccer, it is key to recognize not only your own incentives but also those of your opponent. In our final game, we will face Germany, who only needs a tie to ensure advancement. The US also needs only a tie to advance. (In my world, advancement is the overwhelming goal, with 1st and 2nd position providing only limited incentive). From a tactical perspective this means that neither team has an incentive to go on the all-out attack to score until the other team scores. The longer the tie lasts, the less incentive either team has to try to score. Both teams will focus on possession, measured build-ups and maintaining defensive shape. Attacks will be conservative, with only a minimum number of attackers committed. Needless to say, in a meaningful soccer game where both teams are perfectly happy with a tie, the most likely result is a tie. It may be an awful game to watch for fans, but one of the safest bets you could make right now is that our game will end 0-0.
Secondly, both Germany and the USA can benefit if the other game between Portugal and Ghana ends in a tie. In that case, no matter what the result of our game is, both Germany and the USA advance.
Now let’s talk about goal difference and how that affects our game. It’s very important that Germany comes into our game at +4 while we’re at +1, Ghana is at -1 and Portugal is at -4. Most important for Germany is that if they tie with us, they win our group; but secondly, they also know that even with a one goal loss, they are almost sure to advance because it’s highly unlikely that Ghana will beat Portugal by more than four goals or that Portugal will beat Ghana by more than seven. So, let’s say that we somehow find a way to score and Germany finds themselves down by one goal late in our game. If the other game is close, Germany will not feel any desperation to try to score to even things up with us.
This logic also works in our favor, where a one goal loss for us combined with a Portugal win by three goals or less would still see us advance. So I still see us going through even if we lose, provided that Ghana is not the winner of the other game. If Ghana wins and we lose, it becomes a question of goal difference, followed by goals scored. Of all the possible scenarios, that is the only one where it’s likely we would not advance.
There was only about ten minutes today when I could have envisioned we’d be in a better position than this one.