RECIFE, Brazil » This time, there was no moment. No tingle in the spine, no shiver in the neck, no blood rush to the ears. There was no memory that will live on in hearts and minds and YouTube mash-ups forever.
This time, there was only this: About 10 minutes before the end of the United States’ game against Germany on Thursday, a U.S. Soccer staff member sidled up to one of coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s assistants and informed him that Portugal, playing simultaneously about 1,200 miles away in Brasmlia, had taken a one-goal lead against Ghana. The assistant, Andi Herzog, then turned to his left on the bench and tapped Klinsmann on the arm.
At first, Klinsmann didn’t hear Herzog.
"Jurgen," Herzog told Klinsmann. "Jurgen, Jurgen." Klinsmann looked over.
"It looks good," Herzog said.
An hour later, as he recalled the exchange, Herzog smiled wide. "I think it was some of the best news I’ve ever given," he said.
Klinsmann would surely agree. The Americans advanced to the Round of 16 on Thursday despite losing, 1-0. The United States finished with a win, a tie and a loss in the group stage, which put it in second place in Group G. The Americans, who have reached the knockout rounds in consecutive World Cups for the first time, will face Belgium, the winners of Group H, on Tuesday in Salvador.
As it turned out, the United States did not actually need Cristiano Ronaldo’s late goal for Portugal to help them advance; a draw between Portugal and Ghana would have sent the Americans through, too. But a Ghana victory by 2-1 would have eliminated the United States, so word of the Ronaldo goal, while not nearly as captivating as Landon Donovan’s late score against Algeria in 2010, was nonetheless greeted with a sigh of relief.
Matt Besler, a defender, got the news when he noticed another assistant coach, Chris Woods, making hand signals to goalkeeper Tim Howard. Woods held up two fingers on one hand and one finger on the other. Besler looked over his shoulder at Howard, wondering whether that meant Ghana was winning 2-1 (bad) or Portugal was winning 2-1 (good). Howard shrugged. Then, finally, Woods cleared up the confusion: he gave a thumbs-up.
"We knew that meant in our favor," Besler said. "It was nice to see."
Omar Gonzalez, another defender, got the update from Howard, too, but some players, such as the captain Clint Dempsey, chose to stay oblivious for the whole game. They knew the various permutations — if they could tie Germany, they advanced regardless of what happened in Brasmlia — so they wanted to focus on handling the situation themselves.
Of course, that proved difficult. Part of the challenge was because of Mother Nature, as torrential rain pounded Recife overnight and left many roads unpassable because of flooding.
Not surprisingly, the Germans, one of the tournament favorites, adjusted more quickly.
At one point, Germany had completed 76 passes to the Americans’ seven, and the dominance led to several decent chances. Thomas Mueller and Per Mertesacker were lurking on crosses, but the Americans were stout; they reached halftime with the game scoreless.
The second half began with more of the same, although the United States mustered a few decent counterattacks. The seemingly inevitable German goal came in the 55th minute, when Howard, who was excellent and recorded five saves, made a diving stop on a header but could not keep the rebound away from Mueller. The German star buried his shot into the side netting and U.S. fans — in the stands and elsewhere — frantically checked their phones.
They quickly saw that the news from Brasmlia was turning sour. Ghana and Portugal were level at 1-1, and one more Ghana goal would send the Americans home. Spectators began looking down, at their devices, as much as up at the field.
Not long after came the treat. There was Ronaldo’s goal and Herzog’s news and Woods’ thumbs-up, then the final whistle and some double-checking from the players to make sure that the Portugal score was, indeed, official.
Then the players celebrated, hugging and jumping and crowding together for a smiling, sweaty team photo. There were no dramatics this time. There were no histrionics. There was, in Gonzalez’s words, just "a loss that felt like a win."
None of it will ever be an Internet sensation like Donovan’s goal. But four years later, it was enough.
Sam Borden, New York Times