They prepared for the heat and humidity of the Amazon jungle, but nobody told the U.S. national team it would also have to wade through biblical floods to get to Thursday’s World Cup match against Germany. A torrential downpour left many of the streets in this northeastern beach town submerged, making for a rough trek to the remote Arena Pernambuco.
The road conditions were so treacherous that many of the U.S. team’s family members were stranded at their hotel and had to watch on TV. Hundreds of soggy American fans in plastic ponchos were seen hiking long distances in knee-high water to the game, and players said that inspired them.
Those who braved the weather (including actor/superfan Will Ferrell) got their money’s worth — a tense, hard-fought 1-0 Germany victory that — along with Portugal’s 2-1 win over Ghana — advanced Germany and the United States to the Round of 16. It is the first time in history the U.S. team advanced in consecutive World Cups.
Germany finished first in the group with seven points, and the U.S. team and Portugal tied at four points apiece. The Americans advanced because they had a better goal differential (zero) than Portugal (minus-three). The U.S. team will play Group H winner Belgium on Tuesday in Salvador.
“Mission accomplished,’’ U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said. “This is extraordinarily important for soccer in our country. We get four, five, six days, maybe more, of intense interest back home. We did what we needed to do, and we’re playing in the Round of 16. This was the biggest game the U.S. ever played because there are more people interested than ever before.’’
Losing never felt so good.
“Last game’s draw [2-2 vs. Portugal] felt like a loss, and today’s loss felt like a win,” said U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez, who started instead of Geoff Cameron. “It’s pretty weird but, hey, our mission from the beginning was to get to the next round, and job well done.’’
After a few minutes of initial disappointment, players began to celebrate on the field, and the party continued in the locker room. Back in the United States, spontaneous celebrations broke out in front of the Empire State Building, in Grant Park in Chicago and in the streets of Los Angeles.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann had written a personalized letter Wednesday urging bosses to give their employees a three-hour break to watch the match. “I understand that this absence may reduce the productivity of your workplace, but I can assure you that it is for an important cause,” he wrote. Apparently, they agreed. Gulati said he heard of many corporations that took a midday break and showed the match on big screens.
“Obviously, it’s a huge achievement for our team to come through that group and qualify for the knockout stage,’’ Klinsmann said. “We knew it was a very tricky game, not so easy to handle it mentally, and we gave Germany a little too much respect the first 20 to 25 minutes. I wish we had created more chances, but overall, a fantastic achievement. After the draw, if you would have said Germany and us were in the driver’s seat, nobody would have believed it. Our players are so hungry and committed.’’
A draw was enough for both teams to advance, and Klinsmann has deep ties with the German team, but any suspicion of collusion was dispelled almost immediately. Germany came out all guns firing and put heavy pressure on the U.S. defense from the opening whistle.
Thomas Mueller scored the lone goal for Germany in the 55th minute off a rebound of a fantastic Tim Howard save of a Per Mertesacker header.
“Every nation in the world would love to have Mueller on their team,’’ Klinsmann said. “If you give him that one chance, a clear picture of goal, he doesn’t need two chances. He’s fine with one and gets it in the net.’’
The Americans fought until the bitter end, with Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey taking desperation shots in stoppage time.
Scoreboard watching from the Portugal-Ghana game in Brasilia was almost as exciting as the match. A U.S. Soccer staff member informed the bench when Portugal took the lead in the 31st minute on a Ghana own-goal, when Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan tied it 1-1 in the 57th, and when Cristiano Ronaldo sealed the 2-1 win with 10 minutes to go. It was then, in the 80th minute, that some U.S. players were made aware of the situation.
“I Believe That We Will Win!’’ the U.S. fans began to chant, and though they didn’t win, they felt like winners.
Forward Jozy Altidore missed his second game with a strained hamstring. Klinsmann stuck with Dempsey as the lone forward but made two changes in the starting lineup. He replaced Weston native Bedoya with Brad Davis in midfield, and Cameron with Gonzalez at center back.
Gonzalez made his presence known with two big defensive stops in the first 10 minutes. Davis played the first half and was replaced by Bedoya in the 59th minute, shortly after Germany’s goal.
It was an especially meaningful game for Klinsmann and the five German-American players on the U.S. team. Jermaine Jones was one of the final cuts from Germany’s 2008 European championship team, and played like a man possessed, like he had something to prove to German coach Joachim Loew, who left him off that roster.
Jones said he also took great joy in proving wrong ESPN announcers Alexi Lalas and Taylor Twellman, who predicted the U.S. team would not advance past the first round.
“Alexi and Taylor were talking like we have no chance to come through to next round, so we showed them and other people who doubted us that they’re not right,’’ Jones said. “We have a good team, a better team than they were thinking. This was a special day.’