9:36 PM EDT, June 26, 2014
Ignore the score line, which says the U.S. men's soccer team lost to Germany, 1-0, on Thursday in rainy Recife, Brazil.
This was a huge moral victory for a team that has yet to establish itself as a power on the World Cup stage. A national team that only now, nearly four decades after Pele arrived in this country to educate millions of soccer heathens about the beautiful game, has advanced beyond group play in two consecutive World Cup tournaments for the first time.
By playing staunch defense and persevering through a typically slow start in which they barely touched the ball in the first 10 minutes, the Americans deserved to survive the so-called "Group of Death" and reach the round of 16.
They finished second to perennial power Germany amid this fearsome foursome, earning a knockout-round matchup against Group H winner Belgium on Tuesday.
Tying or defeating Germany would have made a louder statement, but that didn't happen. It didn't have to. Portugal's 2-1 victory over Ghana on Thursday cemented it, but the key is the U.S. found a way to move on.
"Everybody said, 'You have no chance,'" U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said in a postgame interview on television. "We took that chance."
They seized the moment as much as they could only a few days after a tough tie against Portugal in punishingly hot and humid Manaus. Omar Gonzalez was a rock defensively Thursday. And though the U.S. didn't produce many scoring chances, Alejandro Bedoya and Clint Dempsey had prime opportunities in the waning moments.
"They lost the game but they won the battle," commentator and former player Taylor Twellman said on television. A cliché, but true.
Klinsmann said his players had shown too much respect for Germany in the early going and that he had hoped for at least a tie, but he praised their energy and effort. Rightly so.
"I'm proud of the group. We've still got a lot left in us," goalkeeper Tim Howard said in a TV interview after his five-save performance. "We got to the round of 16. It shows how far we've come that we're not happy just getting there. We've got something left."
Klinsmann, who has demonstrated a strong hand in player and lineup selection, knows the end of this round signals the real start of the tournament.
"We got through the group but we have to do a lot better in the round of 16 and we will do better," he said.
This World Cup has featured a series of delights — and one bite, by the now suspended Luis Suarez of Uruguay. It has drawn enormous TV ratings here — the U.S.-Portugal game was the most viewed soccer match ever in the U.S. with 18.22 million viewers on ESPN and 6.5 million more on Univision — and ESPN was anticipating record numbers for its live stream of Thursday's U.S.-Germany game.
That doesn't mean soccer has "made it" here, however you define that and whichever side you take in the eternal debate over the professional version's place in our sports consciousness.
The World Cup draws big audiences because it's a grand event, an occasion to revel in patriotism, celebrate world-class skills and condemn the melodramatic diving that no self-respecting hockey player would tolerate. It's the best of the best, great entertainment.
Will the still-evolving MLS get a boost from this World Cup? Probably in the short term, and maybe beyond. But the World Cup's allure lies in being a once-every-four-years spectacle. MLS is about year-to-year growth of a strong domestic league and preparing Americans to play at the highest levels. MLS' talent level lags behind the top international leagues, which are readily available to American TV viewers. It's a tough sell and a slow process.
Whatever the U.S. achieves in Brazil, soccer is here to stay on many levels. It's a niche sport to some, and the essence of life to others. Take it as you wish.
Don't want to watch? Wimbledon's strawberries and cream offer an alternative. Baseball is getting interesting. And the NBA and NHL seasons are keeping Twitter aflutter with trades, drafts and free agency speculation. There's enough for every taste.
For those inclined — and there are many, judging by crowds that have gathered for watch parties in major U.S. cities and around the world — this is a fun time. It's a bonus that Klinsmann's team is giving us more reason to come together at every degree of fandom and enjoy a terrific show.
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