After a couple of days in the jungle northeast of Manaus, I am glad I bought malaria meds for the trip. It's not too bad when you're pulling piranha from the Rio Negra, but near the water and while I was on my trek, the mosquitos made a meal of me like you imagine the piranha would if you fell into the water. That's assuming there would be anything left of me after the alligators and piracuacu had taken their share.
Additionally, I'm glad we met the gent in the picture- one Carlos, who basically grew up in this place and took over when his parents retired sometime shortly after World War II. As well as being a genteel and gracious host, Carlos makes an excellent (and inexpensive) caprinha lighter on the sugar than most of the other local bars- a perfect salve for the 2nd degree sunburn on my hand if I weren't so insistent on drinking it.
On top of the minor maladies, the 1st week of winter here has also provided a steady diet of oppressive heat which is generally exhausting. I have been sweating like Ted Striker subbing in for Kareem, and despite all that, I am glad we came to the capitol of Amazonas, I'm guessing I wouldn't feel the same way if I had played 90 minutes in a nervy World Cup match and then had to go face zee Germans.
Which brings me to our boys. The Americans. The Yanks. The Bombpops. The guys who didn't get beat by Ghana this time. The US advanced to the Round of 16 through the toughest group in the tournament, and I would suggest they have not played their best yet. To say that the US backed in to the elimination round seems a bit harsh as much as it seems unfair to say Michael Bradley has had a bad tournament thus far, but much like 1994, 2002, 2010, they needed some help and good fortune to get through. I expected Portugal to wither and die after Clint Dempsey put the US ahead in Manaus, and we were definitely fortunate they carried over the fight against a Ghana team that was falling into disarray. Many have suggested that the US looked the worst for wear in the hot venues in Group G, contrary to my theory about how the group would play out.
So what do they need to make a run deep into the tournament this year?
1. A healthy Jozy Altidore
For the first 20 minutes of the match against Ghana, The US looked all kinds of dangerous against the Black Stars. Then, Altidore pulled up lame and was stretchered off, and we've missed his ability to hold possession against numbers as well as his threat to the opposing teams center backs. Without
Landon Donovan a speedy and feared forward to pressure the opposing defense or without a similar center forward, Clint Dempsey has had to push the line. While he has done well considering the circumstances, the lack of power at the top of the attack really showed against Germany when our counterattack repeatedly stalled.
2. Michael Bradley at his best
You can point to the turnover in the match against Portugal. You can also point to several other giveaways and missed connections over the course of the last two weeks, and you could make a case that Bradley has hit his head against the ceiling. That said, Bradley has gotten more marking attention. He's missing a secure outlet in Altidore (who might help pull away some of the aforementioned pressure). He's also had to take on more defensive responsibility in a deeper position because of how the lineup has been juggled.
Given his ability to cover ground (#1 amongst all players at the World Cup through the group stages), I'd love to see caution thrown to the wind against Belgium and see him pushed back up the field with another forward joining Dempsey to start.
3. Jurgen Klinsmann stays on a roll
After starting off this journey with the Landon Donovan controversy, there were many who buried this thing before it started. Then we took full points from Ghana. Then we got a result at Portugal. Then we squeaked by- one Group of Death survived.
The back line has looked good except for a few shaky moments against Portugal in the steam bath that was the Arena da Amazonas. DeAndre Yedlin has played way more than I thought he would, and he's been extremely effective. Jon Anthony Brooks saved our bacon against Ghana. Even the surprise insertion of Omar Gonzalez looks like a master stroke despite losing 1-0 on a world class one time finish from Thomas Muller.
Despite a relatively conservative look in the last two matches, I have a hunch Klinsy goes aggressive against Belgium and pulls a surprise with his man management in this one. The Belgians apparently look vulnerable on the wings, so a Yedlin start with Fabian Johnson pushed into the midfield seems like a possible tweak.
Regardless, if he is able to find the edge one more time, a win against Belgium and a spot in the quarterfinals seems more than a long shot.