They needed a little help from their friends, but that’s nothing new. The US men’s soccer team has won by losing at the World Cup twice before, in 1994 and 2002. So when the Americans advanced to the second round and a date with Belgium despite being stifled, 1-0, by the Germans in their sodden group finale Thursday in Recife, Brazil, nobody was shocked.
Everyone knew that Portugal had a good chance of beating Ghana in Brasilia, especially with Black Star starters Sulley Muntari and Kevin-Prince Boateng suspended, and it was karmic rebalance that it was Cristiano Ronaldo who scored the winner.
It was Ronaldo, of course, who served up the lethal cross to Silvestre Valera in the final seconds in the jungle Sunday and snatched away a US victory. He and his playmates are going back to Lisbon because they couldn’t score a few more on Ghana, thanks to Ronaldo’s multiple misfires, and because they took a four-goal smackdown from the Germans.
Since they weren’t likely to master the Mannschaft, the Yanks had to worry about the results of a match being played simultaneously more than 1,300 miles away. The US would have advanced with a draw in Brasilia but those teams had no interest in producing a result that would eliminate them both.
So the Americans wanted the Portuguese to win, but not by too much. Their nightmare scenario would have been a Ghana victory coupled with a US loss, and with a dozen minutes to go, that seemed more than possible.
What helped was that the Germans, who’d gone ahead in the 55th minute on Thomas Mueller’s rebound boomer, had nothing to gain from scoring again. Since they already held the goal-differential advantage, even a draw would have been sufficient. The Americans, who now are scoreless against Germany in three Cup matches in three decades, weren’t going to score two goals even if they played until midnight.
But they needed a draw in case Ghana won, 2-1, to avoid losing out on the second tiebreaker, which is goals scored. They also needed to keep it close in case the Portuguese won in a rout. As the clock dwindled, it became clear that neither of those outcomes would happen.
The Germans were delighted with a one-goal triumph that allowed them to avoid an engagement with their Belgian neighbors. And the Ghanaians collapsed, with keeper Fatawu Dauda putting the ball at Ronaldo’s feet after John Boye, whose errant leg broke Clint Dempsey’s nose, earlier gave away an own goal.
Thus did the Americans go through despite losing their finale for the seventh time.
“Well, we got through the group,” said coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the US had managed it for the first time in consecutive tournaments. “But we have to do better in the Round of 16 and we will do better.”
What the US did in this World Cup — a victory, a draw, and a loss — was exactly what it did in 2002 when it advanced despite losing to the Poles because the Koreans beat the Portuguese. Yet this achievement was more significant because the Americans survived the Group of Death, where they’d been picked to finish at the bottom.
Ghana had knocked them out of the last two Cups. Portugal had the world’s best player in Ronaldo. And the Germans still are the Germans, particularly when they need to get points. Breaking even amid that gauntlet indeed was commendable, however unprettily it was done.
“Everyone said we had no chance,” observed Klinsmann. “We took the chance and move on. And now we really want to prove a point.”
That point would be that the Americans can hold their own against the global elite when the elite are playing for the ultimate prize. After the Belgians, whom the Yanks haven’t beaten since 1930, likely would be the Argentines and Dutch. What are the odds of winning that trifecta?
Had the US taken down the Germans, it would have been an enormous statement, but the chances were remote. The Mannschaft was playing with an extra day’s rest after a short hop from Fortaleza. The US was coming from the Amazon, which had doomed everyone else who’d played there.
So the Germans played keep-away with the ball, made the Americans chase them, and waited for their moment. All they needed was one.
“We were dominant,” concluded Mueller. “All the Americans did was sit back deep in their own half, and when that happens, it just becomes a patience game.”
The US played that game because it couldn’t play another, not against a clearly superior opponent. Because Portugal handed them a farewell gift, the loss didn’t matter, but from here onward there are no more freebies.
“Once the group is done, another tournament starts,” said Klinsmann.
In the next one, it’s victory or death.