On Thursday, even in a 1-0 loss to Germany, the U.S. national team reached its highest peak yet as a soccer nation after overcoming the Group of the Death.
SAO PAULO -- Where were you on Friday, Dec. 6? If the answer is "under a couch, trying very hard not to weep," then you a certified fan of American soccer. You recognized what that day meant. With all the menace that can be contained in the word "figuratively" — well, it meant Death.
As the draw for the 2014 World Cup progressed, it kept getting worse. Ultimately, when Group G was assembled it was Germany, Portugal, Ghana — and the United States of America. Every World Cup has one, it seems, and for 2014 this became the "Group of Death."
Germany and Portugal both are in FIFA's top five. The U.S. was solidly in the top 15, and Ghana is perhaps the most consistently dangerous team from the African confederation.
The teams feature stars Philipp Lahm and Thomas Muller of Germany, Asamoah Gyan of Ghana and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal, the reigning world player of the year.
This is what the United States survived in the first half of the 2014 World Cup. The national team program has managed extraordinary achievements over the past quarter century, mushrooming from a soccer desert in the 1980s to a land where game matters, players are improving and the team is attractive to talented athletes with U.S. passports who grew up in other countries.
Thursday, even in a 1-0 loss to Germany, the U.S. reached its highest peak as a soccer nation. The Americans lived through the Death. As hard as it might be to reconcile given that this game was a defeat, this marks the greatest accomplishment in U.S. soccer history.
"It is a little bit of an odd feeling because you lost the last game," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said, "but we're dancing."
|U.S. SOCCER LATEST
Think of who is going home, or is already there, from the 2014 World Cup: Wayne Rooney, Andrea Pirlo, Xavi, Yaya Toure, Luka Modric, Edin Dzeko. Oh, and of course, the great Ronaldo. No more for them. Spain, Italy, England and Portugal. Gone. They'll wait four years, at best, to play another Cup game when the tournament reconvenes in Russia.
Know who's still here? Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and the German-American dynamic duo of Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson. They did not get the victory they wanted against Germany, nor even the draw that at least would have been fulfilling. They got the result they needed, though, with a pragmatic approach that perhaps did not thrill fans watching at home but contributed to the necessary result.
The U.S. is into the round of 16 for the third time in the past four World Cups. Between 1950 and 1990, the Americans didn't qualify at all.
"It's a huge achievement by our team to come through that group and qualify for the knockout stage," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said Thursday.
Klinsmann got the typical Twitter mocking from smart-alecks taking his pitch-side, post-game proclamation, "Everyone said we had no chance to get out of this group," and shortening it, removing the part about group play and trying to conflate it with his declaration that the U.S. could not win the World Cup.
Klinsmann has been extraordinary, though, in building this team to this moment. Whether it's he or his assistants, U.S. tactics have been overwhelmingly effective. (And if it's his staff that handles the technical details, so what? In football, offensive and defensive coordinators are celebrated as geniuses. And the men who manage them win national titles and Super Bowls.)
Playing conservatively against Germany's dangerous midfield was the only way to go, and Klinsmann "parked the bus" not with cynicism but determination. A draw would do it for him, a low-scoring game almost certainly would. And so that's how it needed to be.
Just how much of a team effort this kind of advancement represents is evident in the recounting of the various players who impacted the team's four goals: DaMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson, Graham Zusi, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Michael Bradley — each had a foot (or a head or even an abdomen) in one of those goals. And in terms of keeping them out, Tim Howard made numerous acrobatic saves in the three games; center back Matt Besler couldn't have been steadier; Geoff Cameron was gigantic against Ghana; and Omar Gonzalez, with an astonishing performance in the Germany game, bailed Cameron after that rugged Portugal outing.
"We believe in ourselves and always believed that we could get out of this group if we played well," Dempsey said. "I thought we put in a lot of work, showed a lot of character, even at times when weren't playing the best ball."
Four years ago, when the U.S. had been drawn into a group with Algeria, Slovenia and England, the London newspaper The Sun put together the names of the four countries and spelled out E-A-S-Y. That was supposed to apply to the English, but American fans were celebrating that group, as well.
The U.S. nearly squandered that opportunity, needing Landon Donovan's historic goal to move on in the 2010 World Cup. This time it wasn't decided until the final minute, either, and it wasn't as thrilling a moment when it became official that the U.S. would move on, and the U.S advanced as the No. 2 team rather than the group winner.
It was a more impressive result, though. After all: What is bigger than life after Death?