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Team USA weathers storm, Group of Death to advance to knockout round

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RECIFE, Brazil – By dawn's early light, this was going to be a horror show.

"It was like a hurricane," Matt Besler said upon surveying the deluge of rain and flooded streets that overwhelmed this beach town on Thursday.

That was just the beginning. The conditions were awful for a soccer game, but the game was worse. Germany whipped through with a near perfect storm of an effort, completely dominating the Americans, who finished with just one on target shot, perhaps just a couple real scoring chances and eventually a 1-0 loss.

Whether athletically or meteorologically this was a disaster, yet there is one truism with all tempests … they pass.

Late in this humbling, near hopeless game, the rain suddenly let up. Besler, from his position in the center of the defense, caught goalkeeper coach Chris Woods on the sidelines trying to flash the score of the concurrently played game between Ghana and Portugal to Tim Howard.

Woods held up two fingers and then one, but Besler didn't know which score represented which team. His heart paused for a second. If it was to Ghana's advantage, the U.S. was in huge trouble, the inevitable loss to Germany might mean elimination.

[Photos: World Cup group stage - USA vs. Germany]

Besler swung around to look back at Howard to see if he knew which was which. The goalkeeper just returned with a shrug. So they both stared back at Woods, until he gave them a thumbs-up: 2-1 Portugal, the same as it would end a little later, putting the Americans through to the knockout round despite a sound defeat to Germany.

Michael Bradley, right, congratulates Jermaine Jones after the U.S. qualified for the knockout round. (AP)
Michael Bradley, right, congratulates Jermaine Jones after the U.S. qualified for the knockout round. (AP)

This is what the day was here, weathering whatever came at you – from waist-deep puddles to a Thomas Mueller bomb that was the decisive goal to the fortunes of flaky and unpredictable Ghana, which just that morning booted two veteran stars, one because he reportedly chased a team official around with a broken bottle in a dispute over tournament pay, which itself was remedied by a plane with $3 million in cash onboard being flown to Brazil.

The emotional swings were everywhere, the realization that the U.S. couldn't beat Germany one instant, the terror that Ghana could take Portugal no matter its dysfunction the next.

"Group of Death," said U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, who watched the U.S. live and Ghana-Portugal on TV in his box. "I died up there a couple times."

[Related: Group G recap: Germany and the U.S. advance, Portugal and Ghana go home]

So it was that as the clouds lightened and the rain weakened and the game ended, the United States, thoroughly defeated, was standing in one corner of the stadium cheering along with its rain-soaked yet still delirious fans.

Through it all, they'd survived. Somehow. So they celebrated.

"It's a bit of an odd feeling," Gulati said, "we lost the last game."

"Feels nice as a player," Jermaine Jones offered.

Team USA's lone goal of group play was to advance, so they went with the broader picture, not the narrow one of the day. They'll play Tuesday against Belgium in Salvador, the positive that as good as Belgium is, it isn't likely as strong as Germany.

"Tremendous achievement," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "We can put this behind us, the whole group phase. Once the group is done, another tournament starts."

Klinsmann himself was constantly aware of the Ghana-Portugal score, which wasn't comforting. As long as the game was 1-1, he knew his World Cup hung on whether Ghana banged home another goal. When word finally came that Cristiano Ronaldo had put Portugal up, and all but assured US advancement, he tried to breathe.

"It kind of calmed me down the last five minutes," Klinsmann said. "Except for a couple calls I disagreed with."

[Related: Fans confident the 'Group of Death' has the U.S. ready for knockout stages]

The Americans were already talking about how anything can happen now. It's one and done, 11 on a side, and why shouldn't they maybe make a run? Klinsmann, who won a World Cup as a player in 1994, and finished third as a coach in 2006, said knockout play is liberating, just one opponent to worry about, no confusion about what's needed.

"It is very different because there is a very clear picture in front of you, you have to win the game," Klinsmann said. "No matter how. So you have to win it in extra time, you have to win it in penalty shootout. So this is now …"

The U.S. team will face Belgium on Tuesday. (Getty Images)
The U.S. team will face Belgium on Tuesday. (Getty Images)

Maybe being pleased after a defeat doesn't make sense, but nothing has made sense down here. Not today, not ever.

"The last game's tie felt like a loss," Omar Gonzalez said of giving up a 94th minute goal that allowed Portugal to draw even. "And today's loss felt like a win."

It's soccer. It's the World Cup.

"Do you want to reverse the order of matches? [Then] we would've qualified on John Brooks' diving header in the 86th minute," Gulati said of the dramatic opening game victory over Ghana. "All I know [is that] we are playing in the round of 16."

[Photos: Internet ironically salutes Ronaldo as he leaves World Cup]

There's work to be done. Weaknesses were exposed against Germany, the kind of elite opponent that is unavoidable now. Klinsmann made no excuses. His team was intimidated early and let Germany control everything for 25 minutes, and then was mostly outclassed the rest of the way.

"We have to become calmer on the ball and stay composed and just move the ball around and make the opponent run," he said. "They made us run more today."

Still, the coach was smiling, beaming, clapping. He believes in his crew. Always.

"We are growing," Klinsmann said. "We are just learning every game. We take so much good stuff with us … Whoever we face now, we are going to take it to them."

Two storms weathered here in Recife. It's blue skies ahead. There's life after the Group of Death and the Americans will apologize for none of it.

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