When the World Cup started for the United States in the notorious Group of Death two weeks ago, the outlook was plain and simple – the U.S. would go as far as its defense carried it.
Despite the chatter about Klinsmann’s attacking revolution (which rarely materialized against a constant barrage of technically superior opposition), it was apparent, if not somewhat ironic, that the defense propelled the team to the brink of (relative) greatness and a berth in the last eight.
Cruelly, it was not meant to be. Against the Ghanaians, Portuguese, Germans and Belgians, the ‘bend but don’t break’ policy produced one stunning late victory, one shocking collapse for a draw, one thoroughly deserved defeat, and a seat-of-your-pants final half hour of extra time where the U.S. fell just short of earning itself a shootout.
So while all the focus before the tournament began was about a missing Landon Donovan, a soon-to-be-recognized-as-world-class Michael Bradley, and a misfiring until the final warmup Jozy Altidore, it was two players on the opposite end of the field who played the biggest role in the USA’s march to Salvador – Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones.
With precious little possession in the final third throughout the World Cup, save the Portugal match, the U.S. defense was called upon early, late and often to put out any number of fires its stiff opposition set alight. And while a number of players stepped up in the back line and even just in front of it (Kyle Beckerman was outstanding in three matches), the Everton shot-stopper and the ex-Schalke hardman shone brightest over the full 390 minutes on offer for the Stars and Stripes.
So, when American fans wax nostalgic years from now about Brazil the same way they often do about Korea/Japan in 2002, which of the two warriors should be considered the best American player of the tournament?
One caught fire early, the other late.
It was Jermaine Jones who set the tone just a minute into this memorable Cup with a deft assist to Clint Dempsey who scored after a brilliant mazy run against Ghana. After that the U.S. went into its prevent defense, partly due to the unexpected lead, but also because of the injury to Jozy Altidore. Jones and his pivot partner Beckerman harassed and disrupted the rampant Black Stars to the tune of one late goal, but luckily a late John Brooks header sealed the three vital points in the opener.
Against Portugal, Jones was at his very best. Despite giving up an early lead, Jones and the U.S. attack finally sprung to life and gave one of Europe’s stronger teams a game on equal footing. The German-born American was relentless in the tackle, and also sparked a number of U.S. forays into the attacking third. But it was his bombastic strike from distance that handed his team the equalizer. Jones continued pushing the game with gut-busting runs in both directions but ultimately a last minute goal saw the U.S. earn a valuable, yet disappointing draw.
Jones did his part to limit the Germans in the third match of the group stage, and even suffered a broken nose in a collision with teammate Alejandro Bedoya, but the three-time world champions were simply too dominant and eventually got their reward off the boot of World Cup super scorer Thomas Mueller. But it still took a massive effort from Jones and the U.S. back four to limit the damage, which ultimately paved the way to the knockout stage thanks to goal differential.
Once again versus the Belgians in the Round of 16, Jones and his American teammates gave up acres of space to the supremely talented Red Devils, but Jones stayed solid, not spectacular, throughout. Despite tired legs and a shot straight to his already broken nose, he still managed to provide critical support to his back line, and even came within a Chris Wondolowski shank of grabbing the assist that took the U.S. to the quarterfinals.
However, if Jones wasn’t exactly spectacular against Belgium, goalkeeper Tim Howard was the epitome of the word. Setting the highest marks for saves (16) in a World Cup since 1966, Howard produced one incredible stop after another, frustrating the Belgians and keeping his team in the match. Sound familiar? It’s been Howard’s modus operandi for the better part of the last decade. He saved his best for last though, prompting Belgian defender Vincent Kompany to tweet post-match: ‘TWO WORDS: TIM HOWARD.’
His positioning was impeccable as he anticipated everything the Belgians threw at him, but at some point the levy simply must break, especially after facing over 30 shots and 19 corners. Despite the bitter loss that clearly affected Howard very personally in the post-match interview, he was awarded Man of the Match honors by FIFA, and any less of an accolade would have been irresponsible.
But Howard was also one of the main reasons the U.S. reached the knockout stage at all. Against the Germans he was finally broken once, despite a fierce onslaught that saw Joachim Low’s men control 63% of the possession. With the U.S. offense nowhere to be found, it was up to Howard and his back four, including a solid performance from Omar Gonzalez, to keep the damage to a minimum and pray for a favorable result in the other match. Luckily, it all fell into place thanks to a Ronaldo winner for the Portuguese.
Speaking of Portugal, it was in that match that Howard produced perhaps his most memorable save. After Nani fired a bullet past him that hit off the post and back into the danger zone, a lofted shot caught the New Jersey native on the wrong foot, but Howard adjusted his body while falling and managed to get just enough glove on the ball to push it over the crossbar. He had less fortune later though when a breakdown in the U.S. defense with just seconds remaining saw Portuguese winger Varela ghost in to head past a surprised Howard for the draw.
In the opener, Howard was once again the wall at the back that provided some confidence to an inexperienced back line in its first World Cup action, with the exception of the exceptional DaMarcus Beasley. The early U.S. lead shook the African team and Howard mostly watched as hurried attempts from distance flew past him into the Estadio das Dunas crowd. But the Ghanaians found better form in the second half and Howard came up big each time with the exception of Andre Ayew’s 82nd minute equalizer.
Ultimately, the USA’s second consecutive trip to the knockout stage will be remembered as a team effort, but both Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard were a cut above the rest over the four matches. Without either of them, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the U.S. having gone three and out.
But fortunately, against the odds, the defense that was such a worry going into the World Cup turned out to be the main catalyst for Team USA’s success. Between the sticks, there was never a question as to which goalkeeper would be Klinsmann’s No. 1, and the decision was thoroughly vindicated, only this time, for the whole world to see. More surprising though was the steady, controlled and vibrant display put on by Jones, the man often labeled as ‘a red card waiting to happen’ since he first put on the U.S. shirt. How hard did he work? He finished third so far in Brazil in ground covered (first place belonging to teammate Michael Bradley).
So who was the USA’s MVP in Brazil? Quite simply, there is no wrong answer, but that won’t stop people from debating it. The choice is yours.