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 3.
On Tuesday in a round-of-16 game in Salvador, the Americans will play Belgium, the winner of Group H.
“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 Algeria, 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, made his 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.
The United States alleviated pressure by winning possession and manufacturing mild threats on the flanks through Fabian Johnson and Fort Wayne native DaMarcus Beasley. The only high-quality opportunity came in the 22nd minute when Graham Zusi sent a 20-yard bid streaking just over the crossbar.
Germany went ahead 10 minutes into the second half on Thomas 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 placed a low shot beyond the fully extended keeper and into the far corner.
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.