Steven Goff (c) 2014, The Washington Post. RECIFE, Brazil — The U.S. national soccer team advanced to the next round of the World Cup on Thursday, thanks in part to a handsome and talented chap playing 850 miles away.
While the Americans failed to control their future, losing to Germany, 1-0, at soggy Arena Pernambuco, Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo scored a late goal to all but end Ghana’s hopes of catching the United States in the Group G standings.
The Americans (1-1-1) finished second in the so-called Group of Death, even on points with Portugal (1-1-1) but well ahead on the first tiebreaker, goal difference. The United States finished with as many goals for as against, while Portugal — a 2-1 winner over Ghana (0-2-1) in Brasilia — was minus-three.
Said Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation: “Group of Death, I died a few times. It is a little bit of an odd feeling because you have lost your last game but we are dancing. We did what we needed to do in this group.”
On Tuesday in a round-of-16 game in Salvador, the Americans will play the winner of Group H, which was scheduled to conclude play later Thursday. Belgium began the day in prime position to clinch first place, with Algeria and Russia in pursuit.
“Whoever we face now, we’re going to take it to them,” U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “I think for all the players, it’s tremendous achievement, but now we really get started.”
Needing just a tie, Germany (2-0-1) won the quartet and will await Group H’s second-place finisher Monday in Porto Alegre.
Klinsmann was kept updated on the Portugal score throughout Thursday’s match. “Kind of calmed me down the last five minutes a little bit,” he said, “except maybe a couple of calls that I didn’t like that much.”
The Americans will compete in the knockout stage for the fourth time in seven appearances since ending a 40-year qualifying drought. It is the first time that the U.S. has advanced out of group play in consecutive World Cups.
“As we know from the past, once the group is done, another tournament actually starts. The knockout stage is a completely different ballgame,” Klinsmann said. “We can’t wait to get that started now next week.”
Klinsmann, the German-born U.S. coach, provided two surprises in the starting lineup: He dropped center back Geoff Cameron for Omar Gonzalez and replaced Alejandro Bedoya with Brad Davis on the left wing.
Cameron played well in the opener against Ghana but struggled in the Portugal affair. Gonzalez had made one brief appearance, entering in the closing moments of the second game. Bedoya started the first two matches but had complained of a hip pointer after the first outing. Davis, 32 years old from the Houston Dynamo, made his World Cup debut.
Despite the torrent of rain, the field was in decent condition and did not have the pronounced impact initially feared during pregame inspections.
“I think the weather conditions were difficult for both teams,” Klinsmann said, “but the pitch was surprisingly good.”
It certainly did not bother the Germans, who set the terms from the first minute and moved the ball with purpose and efficiency. At one point, their passing success rate was an unfathomable 97 percent, although most of the short, unpressured variety.
“I think Germany, for the reasons you saw today, is among the top four or five favorites to win this title,” Klinsmann said. “It was for us, hard, hard work, tremendous commitment. We’re growing, learning with every game.”
The Americans absorbed pressure and survived several jittery moments. Tim Howard smothered Lukas Podolski’s low cross as Thomas Müller loomed. Gonzalez whiffed on a clearance at the six-yard box and, on a promising lead in the penalty area, Germany’s Benedikt Höwedes and Per Mertesacker both stabbed at the ball, canceling out one another.
“We kind of had a little bit too much respect the first 20-25 minutes of the game,” Klinsmann said. “Then I think nerves settled a little bit.”
The United States alleviated pressure by winning possession and manufacturing mild threats on the flanks through Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley. The only high-quality opportunity came in the 22nd minute when Graham Zusi, who had switched sides with Davis, sent a 20-yard bid streaking just over the crossbar.
Each side collected a yellow card, Höwedes for tripping Johnson on the fly and Gonzalez for a midfield challenge.
Michael Bradley, the U.S. team’s most important player entering the tournament, remained out of sorts, relinquishing possession and failing to connect passes. His hustle, though, was appreciated by the American supporters, and as the half neared completion, they chanted his full name in unison.
At halftime, the United States was halfway to the round of 16. Even if it had conceded a goal, updates from Brasilia provided good news: Portugal was beating Ghana, 1-0, at the break. In case of defeat, the best-case scenarios, in order, were a draw in the other match or a low-scoring Portugal victory. A Ghana victory of any kind threatened to derail their hopes.
After the break, Klinsmann stuck with his starters while German Coach Joachim Loew replaced Podolski with Miroslav Klose, the co-leader in World Cup career goals.
Germany reestablished control, and 10 minutes into the half, went ahead on Müller’s fourth goal in three matches. Howard made a terrific initial save on a shot by Mertesacker, but his momentum carried him to his right. Müller collected the ball at the top of the box, and seeing Howard off-center, placed a low shot beyond the fully extended keeper and into the far corner.
“Every nation in the world would love to have Thomas Müller on their team,” Klinsmann said.
The Americans began to unravel, tackling with recklessness and laboring to mount an answer. One promising counter dissolved in a miscommunication between Dempsey and Jones. Jones looked away; Dempsey gestured. Yelling from the sideline, the coaching staff tried to get them back in line.
Klinsmann said he was screaming on the sideline for his squad to push the Germans forward and attack more. “Of course that’s easier said than done,” he said.
Meantime in Brasilia, Ghana scored. And suddenly the other match was very much relevant again. If the U.S.-Germany score held and Ghana scored again, the Americans would be out.
In the 73rd minute, amid a rare U.S. foray, Jones collided head to head with Bedoya, who had replaced Davis earlier in the half. Both required treatment. Jones was bleeding from the nose, Bedoya shaken up. Both returned.
With a dimming outlook to tie their game, the Americans had to hope Ghana would not score again. The tension grew, with both the U.S. bench and fans aware of the other score.
Then, word began to spread: Ronaldo had scored for Portugal. Ghana would need to strike twice in the dying moments.
Whether or not they knew the Ghana score, the Americans on the field did not want to take any chances. A swift counterattack threatened to tie it, but Bedoya’s shot was blocked in the box by a sliding defender and Dempsey’s header missed high.
At the final whistle, the Americans were not quite sure whether to celebrate. After a moment of uncertainly, the news from Brasilia filtered to the mushy field. Ghana had lost. Soon thereafter, the video board confirmed it for anyone still in the dark.
From the Group of Death, the Americans were very much alive.
“Whoever it is, we’ll be prepared. We will be prepared,” Klinsmann said of the next opponent. “We can’t really wait to start that phase now.”