On Sunday, June 22, the United States, for the first time in recent memory, looked truly dominant in a World Cup match. They controlled the ball, defended well, and seemed poised to defeat Portugal en route to clinching their second consecutive berth into the elimination stage of the World Cup.
With under a minute remaining and a one-goal advantage, US midfielder Michael Bradley possessed the ball with the opportunity to kick it down the field and virtually seal the victory.
Bradley didn’t do that.
He attempted to dribble through a double team, turning the ball over in the process. With that turnover, Portugal charged down field and gave the ball to Cristiano Ronaldo, who besides possessing the body of a Greek god also happens to be talented at soccer. With a beautiful cross and an American defensive lapse, Silvestre Varela headed the ball towards goal, past US goalie Tim Howard for the last-second equalizer.
With that goal, the US matchup with Germany became far more interesting. Rather than being an assumed advancement for the team, there were high stakes heading into the matchup against the No. 2-ranked team in the world, according to the FIFA World Rankings.
With a win or draw, the US would advance. With a loss and an assortment of possible results from the Ghana/Portugal game taking place at the same time as the US one, the US would advance. Overall, the US came into the day with a 76-percent chance of advancing.
They capitalized on that chance and held on for a 1-0 loss to Germany Thursday afternoon, which was enough to propel the red, white, and blue to the knockout round with a Portugal victory over Ghana.
But they came out against Germany looking as though they had already clinched the group. They were sluggish and seemed unable to stop the German attack.
As the game progressed, the US seemed to settle in and finally started to regain the form they had in the Portugal match, managing to hold off the German side for the entire first half.
United States supporters were glued to their television screens, switching back and forth between the Ghana/Portugal game and the US one, eagerly awaiting the results of the other match.
Around the thirtieth minute of the United States game, the announcers noted a rise in cheering among the American side of the crowd in Arena Pernambuco. Portugal had just scored, putting them up 1-0, which was favorable for the American side, as they had a larger goal differential over Portugal than Ghana. At halftime, things looked great for the Americans, and if results held, they would advance to play in the elimination stage.
Soon into the second half, the US hopes became a little bit bleaker. Following a phenomenal save by Tim Howard, the ball bounced out towards the top of the box. Thomas Muller, the leading goal scorer for the Germans this World Cup, blasted a shot past Howard and into the netting of the US goal.
With a 1-0 deficit, the American side was fighting for survival as Ghana forward Asamoah Gyan scored to equalize the match with Portugal in the fifty seventh minute of that game.
For the remainder of the US game, the fans and players alike were on pins and needles, just counting down the minutes until the results were finalized. An excruciating half an hour followed until finally, mercifully, the results were finalized. A late Cristiano Ronaldo goal off a goaltending error by Ghana gave Portugal a 2-1 victory, while the US held off Germany for the remainder of the game to lose by only one goal.
The result gave the Americans their second straight berth into the knockout stage, although the result of the game was less than favorable.
While they lost the game, they played a very good match against incredible opposition on the biggest stage possible and kept their composure. This year has been a “coming of age” of sorts for the team, as they seem to have finally cemented themselves as a real player on the international stage.
With Thursday’s results, the Americans have emerged from the “group of death”, an outcome that seemed unlikely when the groups were announced months ago. They managed to topple perpetual US-killer Ghana, draw a Ronaldo-led Portugal side, and contend with a dominant German team.
They finished the group stages with 4 points and are going to face Belgium [OR WINNER OF GROUP H, WAIT UNTIL BELGIUM ENDS] in the round of 16.
In the 2010 World Cup, the US also advanced to the knockout stage, only to fall to Ghana due to a crushing extra time goal by Asamoah Gyan. This year, the US hope to end the run of the [Belgian side, led by Marouane Fellaini,] and advance to the quarterfinals as they last did in 2002.
With the higher ranked team winning every game from now on, the United States path to the final is through Belgium, Argentina, and Netherlands. That is a horribly difficult road, but the United States seem confident and ready to take on whatever challenges await them.
United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann summed up the team’s feelings about their performance and their excitement for the things to come.
“Everyone said we had no chance, but we took the chance and we move on and now we really want to prove a point,” Klinsmann told reporters. “It’s a huge, huge step and now we can’t wait for the round of 16.”