U.S. reaches World Cup round of 16 with help from Ronaldo

A dozen years ago, the U.S. needed Portugal to collapse in order to reach the World Cup round of 16. On Thursday, the Americans needed the Portuguese to step up, and they did.
RECIFE, Brazil— Twelve years ago, American fans sat glued to their televisions during the World Cup, gripped by the drama of not knowing if the U.S. national team would reach the knockout rounds. Only they weren’t watching the U.S. play. They watched Portugal take on South Korea, and on that night they needed South Korea to work some magic and for Portugal to collapse, which the Portuguese side did.

On Thursday, American fans were once again keeping tabs on a Portugal group finale, only this time they were hoping that Portugal could either tie or beat Ghana. Unlike 2002, the Portuguese finished strongly, with Cristiano Ronaldo delivering an 80th-minute winner that gave the U.S. the breathing room it needed to secure a place in the round of 16 despite dropping a 1-0 decision to Germany.

Getting a result against highly-rated Germany was always going to be a tall task, but after playing them even through 45 minutes, the Americans looked like they just might do it. The Germans controlled the first 20 minutes of the match, but once the U.S. settled down, it became very much an even game.

The second half saw the Germans show their class, dominating possession and leaving the U.S. to chase the game after Thomas Muller’s fourth goal of the tournament. That goal, coupled with an Asamoah Gyan equalizer in Brasilia set up a tense 30 minutes for U.S. fans who didn’t know which direction things would go. Another Ghana goal could put the Americans out, while a Portugal goal would suddenly give the U.S. some sorely-needed breathing room.

Ronaldo provided that with an 80th-minute goal that took the wind out of Ghana’s sails. The Real Madrid star only added to his legendary status on Thursday, playing an outstanding match on a clearly banged up knee, and doing so even though Portugal was already eliminated. Ronaldo played for his country’s pride, and in the process he helped the Americans secure a place in the next round.

What a far cry from Portugal’s role in the U.S. team’s advancement in the 2002 tournament. Portugal and South Korea needed only a draw to go through, but Portugal lost its cool, drew red cards and led the South Koreans to search for a winner, which Park-Ji Sung provided.

The Americans didn’t exactly play a great match on Thursday, but they showed some good qualities and pushed the Germans further than most would have expected. Jermaine Jones was excellent for a third straight match while Tim Howard did his part in goal to keep the Germans off the board in the first half.

Jurgen Klinsmann turned to Omar Gonzalez to replace Geoff Cameron in central defense and the L.A. Galaxy defender responded with a steady showing. It started off a bit shaky, but he eventually settled down and played admirably.

In the end, it wasn’t the U.S. team’s best performance, but it wound up being enough to secure a place in the round of 16, and how you get to the knockout rounds doesn’t really matter. it didn’t matter for the U.S. in 2002, when that gift from South Korea helped the Americans eventually beat Mexico in the round of 16 before playing a match for the ages in another 1-0 loss to Germany.

Now the Americans are primed for another potential knockout round run, though the road will be tougher this time around. Star-studded Belgium likely awaits, and the Germany match should have reminded the Americans that they will need to be at their absolute best to beat top European teams.

If the U.S. can pull off that upset, then anything is possible, but for now, the Americans can celebrate what was an encouraging group stage performance. They survived the Group of Death, with a little help from Cristiano Ronaldo and friends.