Defeat has never felt so good for the U.S. soccer team.
Beaten 1-0 by three-time champion Germany, the U.S. still made it through to the next round of soccer’s World Cup, thanks to having a better goal difference than Portugal even after World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo’s team beat Ghana 2-1 in Group G’s other game yesterday.
With just one shot on target that was stopped without reaching German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, the Americans were thoroughly dominated at the Pernambuco Arena in Recife, Brazil. Nonetheless, U.S. players and fans celebrated wildly as news the team had qualified was announced on the stadium’s big screen. The U.S. now has been among the final 16 teams in three of the past four tournaments.
“It’s crazy,” Andreas Herzog, the U.S. team’s assistant head coach, said in an interview after the game. “That’s the first time in my life where I’ve lost and I’m still happy.”
The result means all of U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann’s family can celebrate. The 49-year-old, whose wife is American, won the World Cup in 1990 as a player with Germany. He coached the German team to third place in 2006, when current Germany coach Joachim Loew was his assistant.
“First I asked for the result of the other match, and he told me that they have also moved forward,” Loew said at a post-game news conference. “I told him I’m happy. It was not that easy, not clear, not to be expected because the U.S. was an outsider and everybody expected Portugal, but Juergen did it, and they showed they have qualities.”
Progress for the U.S. is likely to increase the focus on the team at home, where their games so far have attracted record television viewership, including an average of 24.7 million for last weekend’s 2-2 draw with Portugal. U.S. President Barack Obama watched yesterday’s game aboard Air Force One.
“It’s very fun to see everyone is crazy about soccer right now, including the president,” Herzog said.
The teams knew before the game a tie would be enough to send both through to the knockout stages regardless of the result in the other Group G match being played simultaneously in Brasilia. Klinsmann and Loew, who remain close friends since working together, insisted their teams would be playing for a win.
“We knew it would be tricky, knowing that a tie would be enough, so it wasn’t too easy to handle it,” Klinsmann said.
To make matters more difficult, the game started after an hours-long downpour that left streets around Recife flooded, causing delays for fans. At kickoff there were vast swaths of empty red seats at the arena. FIFA said the playing surface was “perfect,” and Loew agreed, saying it allowed his team to play its quick passing style.
Germany dominated possession. After 10 minutes the Germans had completed 75 passes to the U.S.’s nine.
Klinsmann, dressed in a blue waterproof jacket and cap, resembled a skipper on the deck of a yacht caught in a gale.
“I screamed from the sideline more than ever just to get my defense up the pitch,” Klinsmann said.
The U.S. made it through Germany’s early threats, a series of crosses fired into the penalty area, with luck and last-ditch sliding tackles. It roused supporters to chant “I believe in the USA,” a tournament mantra adopted by team officials and fans.
Tim Howard saved a shot from Mesut Ozil to ensure the U.S. went into halftime 0-0.
Players from both sides left the field in heated discussion, including Germany’s Bastien Schweinsteiger and Clint Dempsey, the U.S. captain. In the other game, Portugal led Ghana 1-0. Klinsmann said the bench was informed what was happening elsewhere throughout. “It kind of calmed me down in the last five minutes,” he said.
Miroslav Klose, who matched the career goal scoring record in the last match, replaced Lukas Podolski at halftime for Germany.
The pattern didn’t change, with Germany dominating the ball and creating openings. After 55 minutes, Thomas Mueller finally broke through by guiding a shot into the top corner after American goalkeeper Tim Howard dove to stop Per Mertesacker’s header. It was Mueller’s ninth goal in nine career World Cup games and his fourth in three games in Brazil.
“Every nation in the world would love to have Mueller on their team,” Klinsmann said. “He is a player who doesn’t need two chances.”
The goal didn’t spur a change in the U.S.’s game plan. It tried to hold on, and was unable to muster a threat until injury time, when Philipp Lahm made a sliding block of Alejandro Bedoya’s shot deep in the penalty area. Clint Dempsey then put a short-range header over the crossbar.
As time wound down, news that Portugal had scored against Ghana to retake the lead filtered through to fans, who responded with chants of “USA! USA!”
When the game finished, some U.S. substitutes and members of the coaching staff raced onto the field to celebrate with their beaten teammates. The celebrations grew wilder when the scoreboard confirmed the U.S.’s progress. The Americans will play Group H winner Belgium on July 1 in Salvador.
“Whoever we face, we are going to take it to them,” Klinsmann said. “This is an achievement, but now we really get started.”