This afternoon, millions of Americans found themselves in the awkward position of cheering for Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Portuguese star's goal in the 80th minute put his team over Ghana and was the saving grace for the U.S. men, who will advance to the knockout round despite a 1-0 loss to Germany, the winners of Group G.
We can put to rest any silly conspiracy talk that the Germans and Americans would collude for a draw, which would have allowed both teams to advance regardless of the outcome of Portugal-Ghana. Both teams came to play, though the U.S. was clearly overmatched and under-rested. The final score could have been much more lopsided had it not been for a brief period of even play in the first half, a few key blocks by Omar Gonzalez, and some brilliant goalkeeping by Tim Howard.
Germany came out with a burst, dominating the first ten minutes and out-passing the U.S. 108 to 12. Things settled down from there, with the U.S. showing a few signs of life in the middle of the first half. Miroslav Klose, tied for the most goals in World Cup history, came in and it was all Germany from there. In the 55th minute, Per Mertesacker headed a cross from Mesut Oezil that was saved by Howard, but Thomas Mueller found the rebound to score the only goal of the game.
If you were watching the game in real-time -- which wasn't a given if you were one of the 1.4 million viewers attempting to stream the match on WatchESPN -- this was the moment you hurriedly tuned to Portugal-Ghana only to watch Asamoah Gyan tie the score at 1-1 about two minutes later. Twitter immediately blew up with various scenarios and implications; a 2-1 Ghana victory and 1-0 U.S. loss would eliminate the Americans from the tournament, but if the U.S. could muster at least one goal it would solidify advancing.
The American offense remained predictably stagnant, but Ronaldo's go-ahead ensured an appearance in the Round of 16. It's as good an outcome as anyone could have hoped heading into the World Cup, and the U.S. has much to be proud of in surviving the so-called Group of Death.
Still, major concerns should temper our expectations for the next round. Michael Bradley has been basically nonexistent for the past three matches, and the U.S. has been unable to create any kind of offensive rhythm away from the right side. Keep an eye on the status of Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, who were shaken up after a nasty collision that left Jones' nose bleeding. Both remained in the game, but it wouldn't be the first time soccer players stayed on the pitch with concussions.
Next up will likely be a formidable Belgian team that has provided a blueprint for building a lasting, successful soccer program from scratch. Once again, the American will be underdogs, but the U.S. can in some ways already consider this World Cup a victory: Domestic ratings for the tournament are through the roof, and so many people streamed today's game at work that it crashed ESPN's servers. The anti-soccer trolls somehow still manage to find editors willing to publish their drivel, but this year more than any other, the World Cup has been a cultural event of a collective nature Americans only really ever experience during the Super Bowl.
Soccer is pretty much the only sport in which the U.S. can still claim to be an underdog -- though we're making a heckuva run for that status in tennis -- and the fact that so many Americans are jumping on board the bandwagon for a team with no shot to win disproves the idea that all we care about is scoring and championships. Some 25 million people tuned in to watch a 2-2 draw with Portugal on Sunday. Imagine what will happen when our team actually gets good.
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