Ignore the score line, which says the U.S. men’s soccer team lost to Germany, 1-0, on Thursday in rainy Recife, Brazil.
This was a huge moral victory for a team that has yet to establish itself as a power on the World Cup stage.
By pushing for a victory when a tie would have sufficed, by recovering from a typically slow start in which they barely touched the ball in the first 10 minutes, the Americans played a solid game and deserved the reward of advancing out of the so-called “Group of Death” to the round of 16.
They finished second to perennial power Germany amid this fearsome foursome, earning a knockout-round matchup against Group H winner Belgium on Tuesday. Portugal’s 2-1 victory over Ghana on Thursday helped cement it, but the key is the U.S. will move on, a surprise in some quarters.
“Everybody said, ‘You have no chance,’” U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said in a post-game television interview. “We took that chance.”
They seized the moment as much as they could, only a few days after having played to a tough tie against Portugal in hot and humid conditions in Manaus.
Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey had good scoring chances against Germany in the waning moments of extra time to provide some late drama, but even though the U.S. couldn’t score the equalizer, the Americans moved on.
“I’m proud of the group. We’ve still got a lot left in us,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said in a TV interview after his five-save performance. “We got to the round of 16. It shows how far we’ve come that we’re not happy just getting there. We’ve got something left.”
Klinsmann hopes there’s a lot left. He conceded that he had hoped for at least a tie, but he was all smiles at the end, embracing German coach Joachim Loew, his former protege in his homeland.
“We got through the group but we have to do a lot better in the round of 16, and we will do better,” Klinsmann said.
Every small step is crucial for this team and for the U.S. as a soccer nation. “They lost the game but they won the battle,” TV commentator and former player Taylor Twellman said on ESPN’s telecast.
A cliche, maybe, but true in this case. This World Cup has been full of surprises and drama, providing stories that are still unfolding. It has drawn enormous TV ratings — the U.S.-Portugal game was the most-viewed soccer match ever in the U.S. with 18.22 million viewers on ESPN and 6.5 million more on Univision — and ESPN was anticipating record numbers for its live stream of Thursday’s game.
It doesn’t’ mean that soccer has now “made it,” whatever that means. The World Cup draws big audiences because it’s a grand event, a moment to be patriotic and to celebrate world-class skills (and melodramatic diving that no self-respecting hockey player would tolerate).
It’s a great spectacle, great entertainment. It doesn’t have to be more than that.
Whatever the U.S. eventually achieves in this tournament, soccer is here to stay on many levels, a niche sport to some but a slice of life to many others.
Take it as you wish. But it’s great to know there will be more U.S. games to watch, more chances to come together as fans, dedicated or casual, and enjoy a terrific show.