RECIFE, Brazil -- Survival comes in different shapes, by different means. Having barely made it out of Group G, this World Cup's so-called group of death, the U.S. now have to ask themselves: Does it matter how you survive so long as you do?
This is a lucky team. You could even say it's something like blessed. Jurgen Klinsmann and whatever benign, invisible pixie sits on his shoulder have watched the Americans receive nearly every possible break. It wasn't just their own games -- their last-gasp victory over the otherwise-dominant Ghanaians, their draw against a Portuguese side depleted by injury and indiscipline -- that went their way. Every other note the group struck helped: Germany's burying of Portugal into a psychological pit and their frantic draw against Ghana; Ghana's loss to Portugal in distant Brasilia; American heads here have been on a kind of cross-country swivel.
In the end, every tumbler fell into place and the escape hatch unlocked.
It didn't always seem as though it would. In drowning Recife, Brazil, the omens felt off from the beginning. Flooded streets prevented the friends and families of many U.S. players from even attempting to reach the stadium. Anxiety poured in like the floodwater and quickly found its uncomfortable level, washing away any early optimism along with the rats. If Recife were somehow going to be the setting for happy miracles, it would prove to be an unconventional one.
And the Germans looked strong from the start, playing with an intensity that put to rest any talk of this game being the friendly, scoreless draw that would have seen both sides advance. The U.S. players soon began to tire, worn out by a combination of the relentless Germans and that exhausting, heartbreaking draw against Portugal in the jungles of Manaus. After a few minutes, there was never really a question whether the U.S. would lose. All that mattered -- and it really, really mattered -- was by how much.
The inevitable came early in the second half -- a Thomas Muller strike in the 55th minute that, in some ways, took the day's fate out of American hands. In suddenly proximate Brasilia, Ghana was tied with Portugal and needed one more goal to knock out the U.S. Everything felt as though it were tied together with a very thin string. That's how close this all was. "Group of death," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said after with a sigh of relief. "I died a few times up there."
He bristled, however, at any mention of fortune -- the order of the American matches, for instance, and its more favorable pressures. Gulati reminded us that the U.S. had been drawn into this terrible group in the first place, more than enough bad luck to offset any good that might have come after it. Then, Gulati asked us to cast back to the earlier games, to those many things that the Americans did to win their place in the round of 16. Recall John Brooks' diving header in the dying minutes against Ghana, he said. Maybe the U.S. didn't back into the round of 16 with their loss against Germany; maybe that delirious moment 10 days ago was the instant they advanced.
Even against the Germans, even in a game that never felt within reach, the Americans did plenty to prevent their ouster. Tim Howard and his defense played well, especially 25-year-old Omar Gonzalez, given his first chance to shine on the biggest possible stage. "You just want to manage the moment," he said. After an early hiccup, a ball through his perhaps slightly trembling legs, he made a couple of sliding tackles that were stony perfection. Later, after Muller's goal and all the ugly possibilities it surfaced, Gonzalez his defensive partner Matt Besler had a short conversation in the rain.
"It was our job to lock this game up," Gonzalez said after. "No one else gets behind us."
No one else did. The Americans were battered -- after a midfield collision, Jermaine Jones joined Clint Dempsey on the Island of Misshaped Noses -- their sapped legs making the wet pitch look even more like a bog than it was. Yet they held -- they held and they held. They held mighty Germany to a single goal, Ghana managed only as many against Portugal, and now, the U.S. are through. They will play again in four days, and for these four days at least, they will be one of the last 16 countries on Earth with a chance to win the World Cup.
Not Spain. Not England. Not Italy. Neither Portugal nor Ghana. For them, the group of death held to its hard bargain. But for these Americans, there is life, equal parts messy and sweet. They are the team perhaps most like the rest of us, still working to find our paths through these chaotic and flooded streets: All of us lucky in our ways, and yet each of us given a little more time to earn it.