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USA vs. Germany: The Ghost of Torsten Frings

USA coach Bruce Arena

Dear Torsten Frings,

I think I hate you. Let me amend that. I know I hate you.

Sorry to inform you of this. Don’t take it personally. I’m sure you’re a fine human being. Anyone who toiled away for Toronto FC for any extended period of time can’t be such a bad guy. If I read German better I’m sure I could run plenty of Google searches to find out just what a solid person you are. Maybe you give to charity. Maybe you’re a true humanitarian. Your hair is nice. So was your goal vs. Costa Rica in 2006.

Alas, that doesn’t matter much to me or plenty of American soccer fans.

Through a bounce of the ball in Ulsan, South Korea 12 years ago, your name is synonymous with mud in America soccer, if not a lot worse.

Maybe when this play happened it was easier to gloss over a Frings’ (indirect) handball on the goal line on a shot by Eddie Lewis in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. It was easier to justify, back then, anyways: Germany was better than the United States at soccer. Even if the ref calls a handball its still 1-0. The United States still had to beat Oliver Kahn — the player of the tournament it turned out — from the penalty spot. So much of the 2002 felt like a dream anyway, eventually Americans had to wake up.

Chalk it all up the the long-held American soccer inferiority complex, which held sway for so much of the 20th and 21st century. This picture of the hulking Kahn over a then-young Landon Donovan says a lot.

Germany's Oliver Kahn stands over USA's Landon Don

As sands ticked through the hourglass, that initial shrug of, ‘hey, whatareyagonnado’ grew into anger and venom directed at Frings. No, this isn’t American soccer’s version of “Hand of God” goal from 1986 — what could compare to that? — but it’s still a moment where you can directly point to and say: what if? What if the Americans tie the match at 1-1? What if Tony Sanneh’s near-miss at the death wasn’t an attempted equalizer, but an attempted game-winner? What if the U.S. didn’t lose and played South Korea in the semifinals, a team it drew 1-1 in the group stage? What if? … What if??? … What if!!?!?!?!?

Twelve years on, that’s the most galling part of the Frings non-call. The 2002 World Cup opened up as the most random, bizarre tournament of the modern era (until this month in Brazil) right from the get-go when Senegal shocked France 1-0 in the first match. This was the same tournament that saw South Korea — conspiracy theories aside — defeat Spain and Italy in the knockout rounds. Turkey reached the semifinals and hasn’t been back to a World Cup since. Hell, the United ‘frickin’ States of America made the quarterfinals and held its own vs. mighty Germany.

A lot is made about tactics or formations or drawing lines to make shapes on the field or whatever about soccer nowadays. Often it’s simply the bounce of the ball. The call of a referee. The United States, as of yet, hasn’t developed enough quality players with superior ability to brush off bouts of misfortune or straight up mistakes (*cough* Geoff Cameron *cough*). Few teams, regardless of their pedigrees or trophy cabinets, aren’t going to be pissed off for a blown handball call in the box — one that stops a potential goal from crossing the line no less. Advancing deep into the World Cup every four years isn’t, if anything, a simple task.

Frings, if we can separate the emotional attachment, didn’t exactly do anything wrong on the still-controversial play. His arm was by his side. The ball hit into it. This wasn’t a Luis Suarez vs. Ghana situation. In a split second of time and cosmic coincidence, ball zeroed in on his forearm and hit into it. Great news for Germany, less so for the Americans.

Much like the United States’ win over Ghana earlier this month doesn’t exorcise the losses to the same team at both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, a result Thursday vs. the current German squad won’t offset what happened in 2002 (or 1998 for that matter). Although Miroslav Klose continues to score tap-ins for the Germans, the main antagonists 12 years ago have moved on. Michael Ballack has taken his cartoon James Bond villainy to the ESPN set to spar with Alexi Lalas. Kahn, I’m guessing, has moved to a remote forest in Bavaria to live off the land and scare little children who venture too far away from home.

If karma exists, Germany ended up losing the 2002 tournament to Brazil. Frings’ forearm will only take you so far, right?

Better yet, let’s as American hope that the soccer karma is paid back today in Recife.

Germany v Ghana: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

MISCELLANY:

Dueling: There’s the natural crossover shared between the German and American teams now through Jurgen Klinsmann and his phalanx of German-American recruits including Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, who’ve been the U.S.’s two best performers in Brazil. Granted the play of dual-nationals is nothing new for the United States throughout its history. German-American Thomas Dooley captained the United States when it played Germany at France ’98 — an American starting XI that included Dutch-American Earnie Stewart and French-American David Regis. South African-born Roy Wegerle came on as sub in the 2-0 loss.

If anything, it’s interesting that Klinsmann overhauled Germany following its poor showing at Euro 2004 around fresh, new, attack-minded players, but used an old tried-and-true method of recruiting dual-nationals when he took over for Bob Bradley in 2011.

Guten tag: A lot has been made in the build-up to this match between former colleagues Jogi Löw and Klinsmann from the 2006 German World Cup team. (I’d like to hear Löw’s thoughts about JK dropping the umlaut from his name.) More practically, only five players from the German team eight years ago are on this year’s 23-man roster: Philipp Lahm, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Per Mertesacker, Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski.

The whole Klinsmann/German-American angle — as applied to the game itself — would hold much more credence 30+ years ago, before the advent of video technology, when teams didn’t exactly know each other at all. These two squads are going to be well prepared for each other regardless of their familiarity and common tongue.

German tabloids are at least having fun with it.

Germany v Ghana: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Crazy like a fox?: Unlike the Netherlands, Brazil or Argentina, which have relied on Arjen Robben, Neymar and Lionel Messi, respectively, to carry their attacks, Germany can get goals from anywhere thanks to an interchanging lineup blessed with a slew of creative, technically sound attackers. In its first two games, Germany has scored six goals from four different players: Thomas Müller (3), Mats Hummels, Mario Götze and Klose. This isn’t the United States’ previous match vs. Portugal where it could focus on Cristiano Ronaldo.

Given the combination of the German offense and the historically-suspect American defense (two clean sheets at the World Cup since 1990), if I’m Klinsmann ideally I’d try to make this game as chaotic as possible or figure out a way to take Germany out of its comfort zone. Given this is the Americans third game and the possible Manaus hangover, a high-pressure game doesn’t make any sense. At the same time, sitting back and trying to absorb pressure for long stretches is a Recife recipe for disaster. If you’re a betting person, don’t expect this one to finish 0-0.

Germany will allow chances. Although it blanked Portugal 4-0, early on Portugal had chances on the break but failed to finish. Ghana capitalized on Germany’s slow-footed defenders and capitalized on mistakes in the midfield to break quickly. One trait the roster Klinsmann assembled lacks is speed. 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin is the only real speed threat in the side. It could be worth including him at some point. If there was a match of the three group games that the U.S. will miss Landon Donovan the most, it’s vs. Germany given the potential chances to score on the counter attack this match should produce. Maybe it’s a spot for Timmy Chandler, too, in the second half.

Klinsmann swapped Omar Gonzalez for Geoff Cameron in the center of defense and opted for Brad Davis over Alejandro Bedoya. Interesting choices, especially Gonzalez who was dropped from the starting lineup in the pre-World Cup friendlies. Davis is probably a move for fresher legs, while Gonzalez and Besler did build up a chemistry during most of 2013. Hopefully Gonzalez will produce another great GIF like this after the match Thursday.

Goldilocks: In the first two games of the World Cup the U.S. has been immediately “too hot” and “too cold” via a first-minute goal from Clint Dempsey vs. Ghana followed by conceding inside of five minutes vs. Portugal. The early goals swayed each game greatly. Against Ghana the U.S. played defensively almost the entire game. Four days later it attacked relentless until Jermaine Jones equalizer. A draw suits both teams, so will we see a little more caution early on, or will the U.S. find itself immediately tossed into the fire via an early goal?

Rooting for Ronaldo: If you’re an American fan and want a backup plan in case the U.S. loses to Germany? Root for Ronaldo and Portugal to beat Ghana 1-0. Better yet root for a draw. Ghana is in meltdown mode kicking two players off the team before the Portugal game, making what happens in that match really anyone’s guess at this point. Bear in mind, Sulley Muntari was suspended and Kevin-Prince Boateng might not have started, so it’s possible it doesn’t have the adverse affect many will expect.

Mother Nature: Rain has was over Recife in the build-up to the match. Reports say the field itself will be playable. On the over-arcing subject of luck and or misfortune let’s all hope the U.S. isn’t sent packing because of a bad bounce caused by a puddle on the field.

One sobering fact: Germany has advanced out of the group stage of every World Cup since 1954 (and reached at least the quarterfinals in every tournament where there was a quarterfinal stage since then). Fortunately, the U.S. and Germany advancing in 2014 isn’t mutually exclusive.

Just because: Last night on Twitter I joked about writing 10,000 words about Scorpions song “Wind of Change” and how it applies to the U.S/Germany match. The idea is probably too esoteric for this particular blog. It’s also something that sounds better as a 140-character tweet than in actual practice. That said, I’ll wrap this up with another Scorpions video — “Big City Nights” — which is fantastic and a perfect way to get in the right mood for the game.

We’ll save “Wind of Change” for after the match, deal?

 

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