American fans experience the anxious terror of winning by losing

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

RECIFE, Brazil -- The tickets had cost hundreds of dollars. The flights hundreds more. And yet the 20,000 Americans who'd braved the pouring rain and navigated Recife's waterlogged streets to watch the United States play Germany could barely focus on the game. They might have been perched in the stands of the Arena Pernambuco but their focus was thousands of miles away, in sun-drenched Brasilia.

In theory, the USMNT's fate was in their own hands; a win or a draw against the Germans and they were through to the knockout rounds. In theory. In the real world, that was unlikely to happen, and as Germany's endlessly scampering attack laid siege to Tim Howard's goal, it became increasingly obvious that the United States would need help in the other match, which was being played simultaneously 2,000 miles away.

Ghana faced Portugal in the Estádio Nacional, and barring a miracle against Germany, it was in that match that the USA's destiny would be decided. A draw would see them through, no questions asked, but a narrow win for Ghana or a Portugal blowout would put the Americans in a precarious position indeed. And so the fans in Recife huddled around phones, speaking in hushed tones and nervously awaiting refreshes, reacting to every update as though it was happening in front of them.

When Portugal scored to make it 1-0, the crowd roared just like it did when Tim Howard made a save minutes earlier. Ghana's equalizer brought the same nervous silence as Germany's corner kicks. And when Cristiano Ronaldo scored, all but booking the Yanks' place in the knockout stages, the Americans went wild, screaming and throwing beer as though Clint Dempsey had found the net.

Never before has the U.S. been so happy to lose. But then again, never before has the U.S. advanced to the knockout rounds in back-to-back World Cups.

That feeling was worth the day of agony that preceded it.

★★★

But for 30 seconds of defensive lunacy, there would have been no doubt about whether or not the United States would make the knockout rounds. Thursday's stress would have evaporated, leaving the match against Germany as a pleasant, extended (if extraordinarily wet) victory lap. But Michael Bradley had lost possession in midfield, Ronaldo had been allowed to cross, Silvestre Varela beat Geoff Cameron to the ball, and the illusion of safety was wrenched cruelly away.

The draw against Portugal meant that the 2 a.m. call to start the five-hour drive to Recife was not the cue to start the party. It meant that the drive was not accompanied by discussions about who the U.S. would play in the Round of 16. It meant the pre-party was conducted under a cloud of anxiety rather than with toasts and smiles.

The entire day turned out to be an exercise in trying to work out how the team could advance despite the widely anticipated but not yet realized loss against Germany. Few mentioned the possibility of a win, and even a draw -- almost as good a result -- was rarely spoken of. Instead, the main question on everyone's mind was how heavy a defeat the U.S. could take, and what result in the Portugal-Ghana game would see them safely through.

"Do you think we can keep it within a goal?" one fan asked.

"Hopefully Ghana and Portugal draw so it won't matter," came the reply.

"We were so close to it not mattering at all."

The disappointment echoing from that last-kick draw against Portugal was never far from anyone's mind. Bradley's place in the team was being questioned. So were Geoff Cameron's and Omar Gonzalez's. Everyone involved in that play had put the U.S. in a dangerous position, one which they'd worked so hard to avoid. Needing last-day favors might be a scenario the Americans are familiar with -- they needed results on the final day of group play in 2002 and 2010 to advance -- but this team was supposed to be different. And for 180 minutes they were different. Then Portugal struck.

Maybe, the undercurrent of every conversation seemed to go, this team wasn't going to make it after all.

★★★

The five-hour drive from Natal to Recife ended up taking six. Fourteen buses carrying more than 500 American fans traveled in a caravan with a police escort, which should have expedited the trip, but Recife and the entire coastline was being pounded by what felt like an apocalyptic rainstorm. The rain came down in sheets, breaking roofs and flooding streets. In some areas, the water was waist high.

That Brazil’s infrastructure is lacking didn’t help. Sidewalks fell to pieces under the heavenly barrage, and the so-called pavements were drowned by the rain, leaving a sticky, muddy mess behind.

Eventually, the buses made it to a bar a half a mile from the stadium. The parking lot was impenetrable by wheel, leaving fans no choice but to walk through a mixture of water, mud and rain to get to the door. The bar was already overflowing when the Americans reached it, leaving many of them dutifully sipping their beers in the pounding rain.

Pregame parties on this trip had been, well, parties, but this was a different experience. There was less dancing and less drunken mingling. Nerves had taken over, and beers were meant to quell them. They went down quickly.

Some still sang and chanted, with "back-to-back World War champs" predictably leading the way, but nobody felt confident about a win. The optimists were predicting a draw, and even they weren’t completely sold.

"Germany knows they’re going to go through," one woman said, trying to justify her pick. "If they turn it off, we can get a point."

It took that kind of thinking to even start to believe the Americans could get a result. The result was an uneasy buzz for hours leading up to the match.

Even inside the stadium, the crowd was conducting itself differently. Gone was the carnival feeling in the stands, replaced by a single-minded intensity on the day's play. That the Germany fans showed up in greater numbers than Ghana and Portugal fans in prior matches, giving the American fans a proper sparring partner, only upped the ante.

While the locals scattered to the top of sections where they would be covered from the falling rain, the U.S. and Germany fans went right to their seats. They were soaked to the bone within seconds, but sang on anyway right until kickoff.

In between the national anthems at the start of the match, there was one common question rolling through the Americans in the crowd: "Who has data?"

Working phones were the fans' lifeline to Brasilia, half a country away. The owners of said phones quickly found themselves at the center of a scrum of bodies; and it wasn't enough to be near just one of them. People switched seats, took other people's seats or crammed in to make sure they were near two or three people with functioning Internet, just in case one went down mid-match.

The game got underway to cheers from the crowd and immediately, predictably, the U.S. were under fire. Which meant one thing: check the score of the other match.

The U.S. would have been through if Ghana and Portugal drew, and were likely to advance with a Portugal win because they had a big edge in goal difference on the Portuguese. Ronaldo was going to have to be America's best player.

One fan even wore a Portugal jersey under his U.S. jersey, despite claiming he had no allegiance to them at all.

"There’s no shame in letting someone else put you through," he said.

In the 31st minute when John Boye — the same man who was beaten by Clint Dempsey and John Brooks in the opening game and is thus the U.S.’s World Cup MVP to date — put the ball into his own net via crossbar and goalpost, the Americans in the crowd erupted. The first fan to see Boye og 31' on his phone yelled out loud, to widespread skepticism. Confirmation was needed, and the entire crowd asked their nearest phone-using friend if it was true. By the time word spread that the dubious report was true, the Americans were dancing in the stands.

Meanwhile, there was an actual match going on in front of them. True to the theme of the day — debilitating nervousness — any chants or songs were cut off abruptly whenever Germany showed even the faintest glimmerings of going on the attack. Even possession 30 yards from goal was enough to silence the terrified Americans. Nothing was going to be easy, or comfortable, or enjoyable until both matches were over.

The U.S. did well to see out the first half and went to halftime at 0-0, a scoreline good enough to see them through to the Round of 16 regardless of the result in the other match. But even then, the tone was the same.

"We’re in a good spot to lose by a goal now," said the optimists. "That’s enough to get us through."

Thomas Müller’s goal fulfilled the first half of that prophecy, the Bayern Munich forward bulleting a shot past Tim Howard from just outside the box in the 55th minute. The strike, both expected and acceptable, was greeted with silence at the U.S. end, but that silence turned to fear and anger two minutes later when Asamoah Gyan struck for Ghana.

"Ghana scored," a man said after looking at his phone.

The game of World Cup telephone began anew as everyone passed along the news. Fear and despair rippled through the crowd. Nerves tightened once more.

"No. One more and we’re done," the man next to him said.

The game of World Cup telephone began anew as everyone passed along the news. Fear and despair rippled through the crowd. Nerves tightened once more.

"Ghana’s going to fuck us again," said the man dressed as a bald eagle.

The U.S. and Portugal just had to hang on for another 30 minutes. But mainly Portugal.

American interest in their team’s match waned even further. Sure, a goal would get them level and through no matter what happened elsewhere, but that was unlikely. This was Germany, after all, the most deadly member of the Group of Death. Instead of hoping against hope to witness an equalizer on the field below them, the U.S. fans instead braced for news, praying that Portugal would hold on.

The 70th minute rolled around and it was still 1-1 in Brasilia. Some of the fans couldn’t handle being one goal away from elimination and walked to the concourse, unable to handle the nerves. Another yelled, "SCORE ONE FOR US, RONALDO, YOU BEAUTIFUL MOTHERFUCKER."

Four days earlier, Portugal had stunned the U.S. Specifically, Cristiano Ronaldo did. While Silvestre Varela was the man who actually scored that 95th-minute goal, everyone knew that it would never have happened but for an inch-perfect cross from Portugal's half-fit talisman. Now, nobody in the world was more behind the well-coifed superstar and his team.

Unbeknownst to everyone in Recife, Ronaldo had been an absolute terror to Ghana. He had come within inches of scoring on several occasions, hitting the crossbar in the first half and directing a thumping free header at Fatau Dauda's midriff shortly after that. He should have been on the scoresheet long before he finally made the breakthrough in the 80th minute.

One man at the top of the section jumped on his seat and screamed. A few rows in front of him, another looked up from his phone and yelled, "PORTUGAL SCORED!"

The U.S. fans, so wrapped up in what could have gone wrong, went into a sort of joyous panic. They couldn’t believe what they were hearing and scrambled for a glimpse at the nearest phone. They had to see the score with their own eyes.

"Portugal 2, Ghana 1. Ronaldo 80’."

Cheers rang out from the top of the section. The news crashed down the stands with the same force of the rainstorm overhead. Within a minute, the entire section was in raptures.

"U-S-A!" was the cry from the American faithful, soon echoing throughout the stadium. People threw beer in the air, an act normally reserved for U.S. goals. People cried as they hugged their neighbors.

The U.S. were 10 minutes from the knockout stages, and they had a two-goal cushion.

Now everyone was an optimist. They believed that they were going through. The team even found an extra gear, nearly scoring on two occasions.

As the fourth referee signaled for four minutes of stoppage time in Recife, the same was happening in Brasilia. Those without data on their phones began using the stopwatch to keep track of the remaining time.

The cheers continued. Some fans danced on their seats. Then more did. Then still more, until the entire section had succumbed to an epidemic of delirious celebration. When the referee blew the final whistle, the players ran off the bench to celebrate on the field.

They were celebrating as losers.

Germany had won, 1-0, but it didn’t matter to the Americans. They had set a very specific goal three years ago — get out of the group stage and see what happens.

They were seconds away from doing just that.

Time ran a little longer in Brasilia and with the U.S. match over, fans stared at their phones.

"BLOW THE FINAL WHISTLE," one yelled.

A minute after the U.S. match ended, the big screen flashed a score:

"Portugal 2, Ghana 1. FULL TIME."

The Arena Pernambuco erupted. For the first time all day, the Americans were truly partying. Beer showers came down, fans kissed and cried and the players skipped around the field, clapping for the supporters that had gone through hell with them in the last two hours.

"We want Belgium!" the crowd chanted as more beer showers rained.

No U.S. fan left until the players had retreated down the tunnel. Then they filed into the concourse, where the post-party was underway. Chants and songs rang out. An old lady showed off her dance moves, accompanied by a child no older than 6.

The celebrations continued outside the stadium, where everything was soaked. Not that the Americans cared. They didn’t have a care in the world.

Back at the bar, the bartenders were under as much pressure as the U.S. defense had been during the match itself. They couldn’t possibly serve beers fast enough. Everyone was buying rounds and toasting their fellow fans.

"What about the Group of Death?!" one man yelled.

"You dead, Ghana," responded another.

The beer showers continued. Some shook their beers and sprayed them around, wetting the inside of the bar much like the rain did the outside earlier. The atmosphere of nervousness, unease and fear felt like a lifetime ago, like an illness that had happened to someone else. The party was back, and it was in full force, with no chance of stopping until Tuesday.

A five-hour drive still awaited the Americans, who had to go back to their hotel in Natal, but the journey was the furthest thing from their minds. They had done it. They had survived the Group of Death, finally conquered Ghana and were Round of 16-bound. Again.

★★★

Maybe this U.S. team isn’t so different than the ones before it. Jurgen Klinsmann still has four years left in charge, which is plenty of time to mold it still further.

But being like the 2010 U.S. team isn’t bad. Nor is being like the 2002 U.S. team. Both of them went to the knockout stages, and the 2014 squad has matched them.

The last day may not have been fun, and it definitely wasn't healthy, but it was a success. After all that uneasy quiet, the seemingly endless nausea and that horrible feeling of impending death, the result was worth it.

"We are staying in Brazil!" the U.S. fans chanted.

Yes they are.

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