'Very cruel game' teaches US soccer fans a bittersweet lesson

New York TimesJune 23, 2014 

  • U.S. chances of advancing

    The United States advances so long as one of three things happen: 1) It beats Germany; 2) It ties Germany; 3) Ghana and Portugal tie in their match. Avoiding a loss to Germany will not be easy. But the U.S. has shown it belongs in this tough World Cup group, and Germany looked mortal in its 2-2 tie against Ghana (which the U.S. beat 2-1).

    Intriguingly, the U.S.-Germany match will also feature something of a perverse incentive. If the teams play a draw, both are likely to be very happy. Germany would then win the group, and the U.S. would finish second, thus qualifying for the next round. If the U.S. and Germany are indeed tied well into the second half, it’s not hard to imagine the pace of play slowing a bit.

    If the U.S. loses and Ghana and Portugal do not tie, the U.S. will then be rooting for a Portugal win. Portugal lost its first match – 4-0, to Germany – which leaves it in a terrible position for tiebreakers. To advance, Portugal needs a combination of results that causes its goal differential (now -4) to be better than the Americans’ differential (now +1).

    Ghana, on the other hand, lost its first match by only 2-1. If Ghana wins and the U.S. loses, the tiebreaker could be very close. The first tiebreaker is goal differential. If Ghana beats Portugal by more than one goal, it advances. Similarly, if the U.S. loses to Germany by more than one goal, Ghana advances. But if both are one-goal matches, the next tiebreaker will kick in: total goals scored.

    Heading into the final match, the U.S. has four goals and Ghana has three. The U.S. wins the third tiebreaker against Ghana: head-to-head result.

    David Leonhardt, New York Times

— Andy Smith stood among a throng of American fans Sunday night, checking the stopwatch on his smartphone, thinking surely this game would end in ecstatic victory.

Then Michael Bradley lost the ball and Cristiano Ronaldo fired a perfect cross and a header whizzed past Tim Howard in goal. And victory for the U.S. at the World Cup became a 2-2 tie with Portugal that felt more like defeat.

“It’s like I blacked out, like, ‘What just happened?’ ” Smith, 40, who is president of the Atlanta Silverbacks of the North American Soccer League, said at breakfast Monday. “It was a sucker punch.”

Fans were still trying to sort out the climactic moments. What happened with Bradley? Was it a bad pass? Was he shouldered off the ball?

When Portugal’s counterattack began, Evan Mitz could not watch. He turned his head. He waited and he feared and then he heard the crowd explode.

The Americans had failed to kill off the game in the corner of the field. Smith had an ominous feeling.

“I knew what was coming,” said Mitz, 30, vice president of the Silverbacks. “We were messing with the soccer gods.”

How many times have we seen this, a team at its most vulnerable when it seemed most invincible? It is what makes soccer so tense and riveting, goals so few and precious, emotions fizzing in celebration or curdling in disappointment.

“It was death, stunned silence,” Smith said of his rooting section. “We sat there 15 or 20 minutes before we got up. The majority of us were spent.”

The U.S. players were left, too, to sort through complicated emotions of incredulity, disappointment and encouragement.

Many of them would have happily agreed beforehand to a win and a draw after two matches. But soccer in the U.S. has matured. Expectations have risen. An outcome that once might have brought satisfaction now felt like missed opportunity.

“Very cruel game sometimes,” Bradley said.

The official signaled four minutes of added time, Mitz said. Then he signaled five.

“Too long,” Howard said. “Thirty seconds too long.”

A victory would have advanced the U.S. to the second round and made Thursday’s game against Germany a matter of clerical work, sorting the opponent for the knockout round.

The Americans can still advance with a victory or a tie against Germany. And they can advance with a loss, depending on the outcome of the Ghana-Portugal match.

But the chance was there Sunday.

“We had one foot in the door,” Howard said.

Until the final seconds, Ronaldo had been left frustrated on a hot, muggy night in the Amazon by the tireless and constricting U.S. midfield. Annoyance showed on his face, in his gestures.

“I think we did a great job not allowing him in dangerous spots,” defender Matt Besler said. “I wouldn’t really say our game plan was to foul him. They were smart, tactical fouls. We weren’t taking shots at him at all. We were just right up against him, making him feel us.”

And then, five minutes into added time, a mistake wrenched delight into the bittersweet. After a night of ceaseless running, Bradley seemed to tire. He has often been the best player for the U.S., but he has not been in top form in this tournament.

He could not immediately settle a pass in midfield and Portugal muscled him and the ball went to the feet of Ronaldo on the right flank.

The U.S. had three central defenders in the game, but Geoff Cameron, Besler and Omar Gonzalez could not reach Ronaldo’s sublime cross. Silvestre Varela headed it home to rescue Portugal.

“An unbelievable ball by him,” Besler said. “He puts it in a spot where it is extremely difficult for me and Geoff to get to, but it’s also extremely difficult for Tim to come out on. It’s a tough one to swallow, but that’s why he’s Cristiano.”

And so the Americans are left to face Germany, a pretournament favorite, on one fewer day’s rest.

In some ways, the game will be as much a reunion as a decisive World Cup match. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann was a star forward in Germany, where he coached Die Mannschaft to third place at the 2006 World Cup. His assistant at the time, Joachim Low, is now Germany’s coach.

Klinsmann was asked Sunday whether he would play for a tie in a gentlemen’s agreement with Low, guaranteeing both teams safe passage into the second round.

This was not an idle question. At the 1982 World Cup, West Germany was suspected of having colluded with Austria in a 1-0 victory that eliminated Algeria from the knockout rounds.

Klinsmann said this was a time for business, not renewing friendships or making deals. Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, also said the Americans would not play for a tie.

“It’s not what this team is about, not what this coach is about and it’s not what Germany is like,” Gulati said.

On Monday, Mats Hummels, a German defender, said any attempt to manufacture a draw would be “extremely unsportsmanlike.”

“We’re definitely going to play to win,” Hummels said. “Anything else would be totally unfair to all the other teams.”

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