By Kevin Baxter, Tribune Newspapers
10:32 PM EDT, June 26, 2014
RECIFE, Brazil — Omar Gonzalez can't remember the last time he celebrated a loss.
But he did just that Thursday, standing in the middle of a rain-soaked field wearing a goofy grin and hugging anyone who came near after the U.S. national team lost for the first time in this World Cup, 1-0 to Germany.
That's because 1,200 miles away in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, Portugal beat Ghana, knocking the Africans out of the tournament and sending the U.S. on to the second round, where it will meet Belgium on Tuesday.
“Definitely, it has to be one of the best losses of my career,” Gonzalez said with a smile.
Advancing with a loss is only the latest in a series of improbable events that have shadowed the U.S. in this World Cup.
In their first game, the Americans scored a goal in the opening seconds, lost their star striker to a hamstring strain midway through the first half, then rallied to beat Ghana on a header by John Brooks, who said days earlier he had dreamed that would happen.
In its second game, needing a victory to clinch a spot in the second round, the U.S. gave up a goal on nearly the last kick of the match in stoppage time and had to settle for a gut-wrenching draw with Portugal.
Then came Thursday's ground-stage final with Germany. With a victory, the U.S. would finish first in the group. With a tie, it would clinch a place in the second round.
It got neither.
But thanks to a better goal differential, the U.S. is going on and Portugal, which finished with the same record in group play, is going home. Given little chance to survive the tournament's “Group of Death,” the U.S. team has been reborn for the knockout stage, in which each game is an elimination game.
“Being able to advance out of a difficult group like we were in, getting to the knockout stages, it doesn't matter how it happens. You're there, so enjoy the moment,” team captain Clint Dempsey said.
“There were a lot of people who doubted us. But we always believed and we kept fighting. We deserve to be in the next round.”
To get there they had to travel nearly 9,000 miles — way more than any other team in the tournament — to their three group-stage games, playing Portugal in the sauna of the Amazon and Germany in a tropical rainstorm four days apart. Along the way Dempsey broke his nose while Jermaine Jones appeared to have broken his Thursday as well.
But they kept coming, kept defying the odds.
“It's a fantastic achievement by all the guys,” U.S. coach Juergen Klinsmann said. “It was for us hard, hard work. Tremendous commitment.”
The only goal Thursday came in the 55th minute. After U.S. keeper Tim Howard made a splendid save on a header from Germany's Per Mertesacker, the rebound bounced outside the 18-yard box to Thomas Mueller, who pounced on it and sent a bending right-footed shot just inside the right post for his third goal in as many games.
Even after that, the U.S. retained a defensive posture, trying to protect their slender lead in goal differential. As a result, Germany enjoyed a huge margin in time of possession and had nine shots on goal to one for the U.S. — and that one didn't come until the final minute of stoppage time when Dempsey, unaware of what was happening in the other game, led a mini-rally.
As it turned out, that wasn't necessary because even after being shut out, the U.S. is on to the second round, where first-round records are thrown out.
“Everything's fresh,” Dempsey said. “It doesn't matter what you've done in the group stages. It's what you're going to do on that day. And there's more pressure to that game because you either stay or you go home.
“You want to keep staying, you want to keep fighting for the opportunity to be in the tournament as long as possible.”
And if the U.S. has proved anything, it has proved it's very good at staying and fighting.
“We're going to give everything we have and put everything we have into this (next) match,” defender Matt Besler said. “And see what we can do.”
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