Charles Boehm is covering the USMNT and the World Cup for Gothamist from Brazil for the duration of the tournament. He has covered MLS and the American soccer scene since 2004, contributing to MLSSoccer.com, The Soccer Wire, and USSoccerPlayers.com.
RECIFE, Brazil - The U.S. national team lost, but won on Thursday afternoon. And that's not even the strangest part.
With monsoon conditions causing widespread flooding and utter gridlock on the streets and highways of this city, the match between Germany and the U.S. was nearly inundated by matters of far greater consequence as locals and World Cup visitors alike were rendered helpless by more than 16 hours of relentless rainfall.
And when play finally did get underway, the Americans on the field were soon swamped by an organized, aggressive German team which could've won by a larger margin and looked every inch the championship contenders they are.
But a 1-0 loss at Arena Pernambuco was not enough to knock the U.S. out of second place in World Cup Group G, thanks to Portugal's 2-1 defeat of Ghana thousands of miles to the southwest in Brasilia.
So coach Jurgen Klinsmann's team have survived “the Group of Death” and will meet Belgium in Salvador on July 1 in a round-of-16 match that fans could only dare to dream of just a few weeks ago.
“It was a bizarre day,” said U.S. defender Matt Besler in the postgame media mixed zone. “We woke up and felt like there was a hurricane last night.
“There was just a lot of adjustments we had to make. We were driving in and our bus takes 50 minutes instead of 25. As we're driving, we're seeing half the town in water. And we get to the stadium and we find out that we're not allowed to warm up on the field [in an effort to preserve the waterlogged grass].
“It's the biggest game of your life and you can't get onto the field and get touches before a match. All you have to do is run 15 yards up and down the sidelines to get ready.”
Driven by political and developmental motives, local officials decided to build this gleaming new arena in a rural area miles inland from Recife proper. It's planned as the anchor of a large mixed-use development project but for now, it stands alone in an isolated area with effectively just one road in and out.
So when flooding-induced chaos mixed with bumper World Cup crowds, traffic snarled. Thousands of U.S. supporters got out of their vehicles and walked, in some cases many miles, in an effort to reach the game. Even many players' families were unable to reach the stadium, as only one of several buses got through and others returned to their hotel.
“I was listening to my music and looking out the window, and I saw plenty of U.S. fans trekking their way towards the stadium,” said Omar Gonzalez, who played well in his first World Cup start as he replaced Geoff Cameron at the heart of the USMNT defense. “That kind of passion to root us on is what really helps drive us. I just really want to thank all the fans that made it to the game, and for the ones that got stuck - our families didn't even make it to the game.”
To pile on further distractions, the other final match of the group was playing out simultaneously in Brasilia and some players—but not all, as it turned out—were relayed news of that game's development from the U.S. bench. Portugal led for much of the game but a late rally by Ghana saw them draw level at 1-1 and had they pulled ahead, it would've been disastrous for the Americans, who would've been eliminated with a loss to Germany and a Ghana victory.
“There was just a lot of factors going into today's game that made it a difficult one for both teams, really,” said captain Clint Dempsey, who worked hard in a lone striker's role and nearly scored on a close-range header in the game's dying moments.
“I didn't [know the Ghana score], that's why I was pushing at the end,” he said. “I was trying my best to help the team get a draw because I knew that with the draw, we would for sure go through.”
Several of his teammates, on the other hand, did.
“With about 15 minutes left, I wanted to know,” said Besler. “I didn't want to know early on, because we all wanted to go out and play the game our way, we wanted to come out and first of all try and win, try and win the group. But then with about 15, 20 minutes [left], it's smart to know what's going on in the other game, in case you do need a goal.”
Much like their tournament-opening 2-1 win over Ghana, the U.S. were driven back into their own end of the field for long periods. While Klinsmann's team showed something of a hangover from Sunday's draining draw with Portugal in the Amazon humidity of Manaus, the Germans passed and moved methodically, and applied swarming pressure on the ball when they lost it.
“We knew it's going to be a tricky situation, this game,” said Klinsmann, noting the vagaries caused by two simultaneous games wherein the Americans could reach the next round under a variety of circumstances. “We had a little bit too much respect the first 20, 25 minutes of the game, then we came into it a little bit.
“Their effort, their commitment over 90 minutes was outstanding … Overall it's just a fantastic achievement by all the guys.”
The Germans' control of the match provided the U.S. with a humbling reminder of just how strong the World Cup's elite teams really are. But it's still “mission accomplished” for a team that was widely pegged to finish in last place in Group G. Up next: A round-of-16 meeting with Belgium in Salvador on Tuesday.
By Charles Boehm