Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
RECIFE, Brazil — For the U.S. Men’s National Team, this may have been the best loss ever.
The U.S. was defeated by Germany in a Group G finale played amid torrential downpours Thursday afternoon, but the 1-0 loss to the group winners was overshadowed by the fact that the Americans advanced to the Round of 16 after Portugal mustered just a 2-1 win over Ghana in the match they played simultaneously in Brasilia.
Both Germany and the U.S. celebrated amid festive scenes at Arena Pernambuco almost immediately after Thomas Mullers’ 55th-minute bender stood as the winner. The pro-U.S. crowd in attendance was especially rowdy in cheering on the Americans, who had accomplished what so few pundits believed they could by advancing out of a difficult Group G that many considered to be the Group of Death at this summer’s World Cup.
U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players basked in the temporary glory alongside Germany, knowing full well that they had accomplished one of their bigger goals despite tasting defeat for the first time in Brazil.
“Yeah, (it was a little surreal),” said captain Clint Dempsey. “It would’ve been nicer to celebrate after the last game in terms of the performance we put in but at the same time being able to advance out of a difficult group like we were in, getting into the knockout stages, it doesn’t matter how it happens. You’re there, so you enjoy that moment.”
Part of what made that moment sweeter to the U.S. was that it had proven plenty of skeptics wrong. The Americans were not given much of a chance by most accounts to make it into the Round of 16, but they did so with a late win over Ghana in their opener, a draw with Portugal that could have been a win if not for a late goal from Varela in the second match and a narrow defeat to Germany on Thursday.
Midfielder Jermaine Jones even went as far as bringing up an example during postgame interviews of people doubting the Americans’ ability to safely navigate themselves out of the group and continuing on in the tournament. Jones talked about the moment during the send-off series in which the U.S. was in New York for a media appearance in Times Square and former U.S. Men’s National Team players and current ESPN employees Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman were put on the spot and asked if the U.S. would advance from its group in front of the American players.
Lalas and Twellman said no, but that they would not mind being proven wrong. That moment added a little more to the fire in the bellies of the U.S., which fully believed that it could and would get through the difficult group months before actually doing it.
“We lose the game but it’s a nice lose so everybody is happy that we come to the next round and you show some people (wrong),” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “We have that time when we were like in New York in Times Square and Alexi Lalas and Taylor (Twellman) and there were people talking how we have no chance to come through to the next round. The team is always looking forward and we got it and we showed people that we have a good team and good atmosphere.”
The U.S. might be among the final 16 teams at the World Cup, but it could have been eliminated from the competition had Portugal or Ghana won by certain margins. As a result, Klinsmann and his coaching staff were keeping track of the score of the Portugal-Ghana game throughout the course of the U.S.-Germany bout in rainy Recife.
The players were not. Instead, they focused on trying to pick up the three points that would’ve given them a first-place finish in the group.
“We didn’t have really much of an idea what was going on in the other game,” said centerback Omar Gonzalez. “I think with 10 minutes left Tim Howard came up and said a score, but I have no idea how he got that information. I wasn’t too worried about the other match. We came into this game wanting to win this game, but when we went down 1-0 we wanted to tie it up and if we couldn’t tie it up we wanted to keep it at 1-0 because we knew that was our best chance of getting through.”
The Americans will enjoy advancing to the next round for a bit, but it will not take them and Klinsmann very long to shift gears and focus on the task that lies ahead with a July 1 showdown vs. Group H winners Belgium in Salvador.
The U.S. will not have the rare luxury of being able to celebrate that one with its fans without being victorious, but on this Thursday in Recife they could.
“If you’re writing a script – you wouldn’t ever write a script that had you losing a game -but if you were looking at how this would play out you’d say, ‘Beat Ghana, draw with Portugal and play like heck against Germany,’” said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “Germany is a great team, great credit to them. They’re a very, very good team and they were better than us today but we did what we needed to do.”