But, to understand why, you must broaden your horizons and grasp that this is not about 90 minutes against one of the favorites to leave with the World Cup trophy in 16 days time, but rather this is about nearly 300 minutes against favored opponents and surviving enough of the gauntlet to proudly advance to the knockout phase.
That, granted, is certainly outside of the normal structure of one game, one result, but this group play is a bit of an odd duck across the sporting universe. 4 teams are randomly drawn into a group, and then you spend 2 weeks at the World Cup playing each other to decide who the Top 2 teams will be to advance.
Therefore your first match against Ghana – with the victory taken from John Brooks’ cameo that started this fire – was enough to basically do all of the heavy lifting that put the USA through and Ghana behind the 8-ball. Meanwhile, in that same first match, Portugal lost its mind and then the match in a very one-sided demolition from Germany which also basically advanced the Germans and set the Portuguese on a very rough journey that has since ended in tears.
If Portugal had been able to beat the USA in Match-day 2, they would have overcome that issue and then beaten Ghana and advanced. But, they didn’t. They played most of the match against the USA as the 2nd best, with the American controlling big parts of the contest and basically had the victory before an amazing smash and grab job by Ronaldo late to snatch a draw and the slightest ray of hope for Thursday. They would need the Americans to fold up against the Germans as badly as they did to have any chance, and the USA did not let that happen.
So, despite the news anchor snark and the twitter jokes that are out there, yes, the USA advanced on a day they lost. But, it was the degrees of the loss that were essentially the tie-breaker between the US and Portugal from their contests against the Germans. And, when the USA loses, 1-0, but Portugal loses to the same team, 4-0, the answer is clear. The USA had a massive 3 goal difference on the first tie-breaker of goal differential.
Therefore, as I said yesterday on Twitter, "USA will not be issuing apologies for advancing out of possibly the toughest group in the toughest competition. So don’t wait up for one."
The match itself was not one that was worth remembering, except for the idea that it was a magical 2-screen experience where people wanting the USA to advance knew that only 1 screen needed to produce the preferred result for the happy ending in Group G. Either the United States gets a result against Germany or Portugal-Ghana would have to cooperate in the form of anything but a Ghana win, basically.
That put people like me in the odd position of hoping Cristiano Ronaldo could do magical things, and to his credit, he was on point all day long in a game he and his team-mates were playing for pride. They knew they had almost no chance of everything falling right, but did want to leave the tournament that Messi and Neymar are dominating with his head held high and I would have to say from watching him buzzing the Ghana goal all day that he did just that. And when he scored his goal late in the match to put the Portuguese out front in the 80th minute, the USA may not have found out instantly, but they basically were then playing a match that lacked importance.
And that was lucky for them (luck that they created by beating Ghana and nearly beating Portugal in the days before, mind you) because most of the match against the mighty Germans was not the Americans finest work. They defended almost all day and even their counters lacked a whole lot of promise. On their best day, I would love to see the US mount a better surge against a mighty side like Germany, but that would require Jozy Altidore, an on-form Michael Bradley, and not being on short rest after playing in Manaus with just 3 days in between.
It was overall disappointing to see the boys on their heels so much, but that is where Tim Howard is very handy. He is nails under siege and while he is not perfect, he is about as perfect a player at that position as we could have. His composure and ability to traffic cop a situation is mighty handy. Also, Dallas’ Omar Gonzalez entered the fray and while moments were tense, I think everyone would have to be pretty pleased with his debut on this stage. In fact, yesterday was a lineup that featured 7 players from Major League Soccer in the 11, and another in DeAndre Yedlin coming on as a substitute who adds great dynamic speed to the right flank and suddenly we see that the top shelf of MLS is a bit more capable than some are willing to admit.
There were close calls and weathering storms, for sure. There were big saves and too few counter attacks with bite. In stoppage time late, the US sniffed around an equalizer, but never quite found that moment. But, since Ronaldo found his, you are not certain the USA was throwing everything at the Germans that they could.
It didn’t matter. They did their work earlier. They did not lose their way to the next group. They had already accomplished more than Ghana or Portugal could make up. Good for them. Don’t penalize their hard work accomplished early because you cannot grasp the concept of group play (I apologize for acknowledging the snark, but come on!).
So that means that for the 3rd time in 4 World Cups, the USA is advancing out of Group Play. It is becoming routine for our little guys. We used to never make World Cups, but now we make them every time. Then, the next hurdle was to advance regularly. We might be there. According to Peter Welpton, here is the entire list of 8 countries who have advanced in 3 of last 4 World Cups to the Round 16: Brazil, Germany, Argentina, The Netherlands, England, Mexico, Spain, and the United States of America.
We now belong on that list with those world powers – and our 2 natural rivals (England and Mexico). Delicious. Nobody from Asia, Africa, or Central America. Just the powers of Europe and South America.
They are still miles ahead, but I am telling you, the progress is remarkable.
Now, valuable rest which might even bring Jozy back into the mix. Belgium is next. They will be favored, but it seems like a match where the USA can make noise.
But, make no mistake, this is now the gravy phase. If they can work their way past Belgium, no doubt Argentina and Messi will be waiting. The stars on the other side of the field will eventually bring this run to a close, but with great pride they should line up on Tuesday and go for it. This is a great time to have a National team this easy to love.