Rick Maese (c) 2014, The Washington Post. RECIFE, Brazil – Losses aren’t supposed to feel this good. In sports, the verdict is usually spelled out in giant numerals, distinct and resolute. And there was certainly nothing ambiguous about Thursday’s final score: Germany 1, United States 0. But no sooner had the referee blown his whistle than the narrative received a red, white and blue-colored plot twist.
The Germans won, but the Americans celebrated.
Once the thousands of rain-soaked fans received word that in another game more than 1,000 miles away, Ghana was eliminated from World Cup play and the United States would live to kick another ball, the celebration began in earnest.
“U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” they chanted from every corner of Arena Pernambuco.
In Washington’s Dupont Circle, thousands joined in. And in Chicago’s Grant Park, and in New York’s Times Square, too.
“It’s pretty weird,” admitted an elated Omar Gonzalez, the U.S. defender who’s playing in his first World Cup.
The weirdness, which hinged on Portugal’s 2-1 win over Ghana in Brasilia, ensured the United States would finish the final day of first-round play with the second-best mark in Group G – the so-called “Group of Death” because of the pedigreed competition. The Americans will move on to the tournament’s do-or-die round of 16, where they will face Belgium on Tuesday in Salvador. The loser of that match goes home; the winner heads to the quarterfinals.
“Now we really get started,” said Jurgen Klinsmann, the German-born head coach of the American team. “Now we can put this behind us, the whole group phase. As we know from the past, once the group is done, another tournament actually starts. The knockout stage is a completely different ballgame.”
The American fans who traveled here persevered through an all-day storm, flooded city streets and an exasperating scoring drought. But suddenly, as play came to a halt, none of that mattered. They bounced, waved flags, swung scarves. They chanted and sang and cheered themselves hoarse.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. After beating Ghana and playing Portugal to a tie earlier in the tournament, the Americans knew a win or draw was needed Thursday to advance to the tournament’s next round. As it turned out, a loss was enough, too.
“We didn’t qualify just because of this game,” defender Matt Besler said. “We qualified because of all three of the games. All three of the games mattered, and we did enough to advance.”
Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, called it the biggest game the United States has ever played “because the country was paying attention in a way that it’s never paid attention,” he said.
Back in the States, business came to a halt at many companies nationwide as employees gathered in break rooms and huddled around television sets. Many others left work early for the day, settling into bar stools or living-room couches. In fact, one day earlier Klinsmann encouraged soccer fans to skip work, sending an excuse note via Twitter for fans to deliver to their bosses.
The tournament occurs only once every four years, and though the United States has found modicum levels of success before, television ratings and American interest have hit new levels in recent days. This marks the second straight World Cup that the United States has reached the round of 16, and though the team was certainly no favorite to compete for the championship, the way it battled through a difficult group despite missing injured striker Jozy Altidore the past two games has captured the imagination of fans of all levels.
“It’s extraordinarily important that we get four, five, six days and hopefully more of intense interest in the United States,” Gulati said.
Thursday’s drama started long before the referee placed the ball at midfield.
Recife, a gritty city located on Brazil’s northern coast, awoke to steady rain showers. Streets were overflowing with rainwater and traffic was gridlocked. Fans waiting for buses or taxi cabs became drenched and began scrambling for alternative transportation to the stadium.
“I was listening to my music and looking out the window and I saw plenty of U.S. fans trekking their way toward the stadium,” Gonzalez said of the team’s bus ride to the game.
Much of the traveling party that included players’ families and friends never even left their Recife hotel, and instead had to watch on televisions, computers and smartphones.
At the stadium, the slick field forced both teams to alter their pregame routines, too, skipping their usual warmup drills and exercises.
“It was just a weird preparation,” U.S. captain Clint Dempsey said. “Also in the back of your mind, a lot of your family not being able to make it to the game because of the traffic and everything – just wanting to make sure they’re safe.”
Once the match began, the U.S. players appeared to be leaning back on their heels a bit. The talented German squad controlled possession nearly two-thirds of the game, at times whipping the ball back and forth like a playground game of keepaway.
The score was knotted until 10 minutes into the second half when Germany’s Thomas Müller fired a low strike past the outstretched arms of Tim Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper.
The Americans failed to mount many offensive opportunities of their own, finishing with just one shot on goal.
“We all understand that we’re gonna have to play better,” Besler said.
While the Americans knew they controlled their own fate and could advance with at least a tie, as the game wore on, they also knew there were some circumstances in which they’d play on even with a loss. Players said they tried to actively avoid hearing updates on the other Group G game, Portugal vs. Ghana, which was taking place at the same time in Brasilia.
Klinsmann said he received an update shortly after Portugal scored its second goal and breathed an immediate a sigh of relief, but most players say they didn’t learn of their good fortune until after the loss to Germany was in the books. Exhausted and soaked, they were able to enjoy a tired on-field celebration in defeat.
“I think all three games took a little bit of a toll on everybody,” Besler said.
And that means U.S. soccer fans from Brazil to Washington have reason to keep their red, white and blue paraphernalia handy. According to Gulati, the USSF president, the U.S. team might have lost Thursday, but the sport and its passionate fans scored a big win.