[BRAZIL 2014]Sometimes you need a little help at the World Cup. The USA got it with collapses on the field by Portugal (against Germany) and off the field by Ghana (before the Portugal game). But the USA earned qualification to the round of 16 -- something few gave it a chance of achieving -- thanks in large part to its remarkable resilience. Here are the five turning points of U.S. qualification.
1. Portuguese first half in Salvador.Everyone marveled at the German machine as it rolled over Portugal in their opener. But as subsequent games showed, the Germans aren't as good as they showed in the first half in Salvador -- and the Portuguese aren't as bad as they played in the first 45 minutes when they fell 3-0 down and lost Pepe to a red card.
The Portuguese dug themselves a huge hole from which they could never get out after they couldn't beat the USA in Manaus. The minus-four goal difference from the first game was always going to be impossible to overcome.
2. John Brooks' winner against Ghana.U.S. qualification always depended on winning at least one game, and Jurgen Klinsmann identified the Ghana opener as the must-win game. Things didn't look very good after Andrew Ayew's equalizer in the 82nd minute -- 81 minutes after Clint Dempsey put the USA ahead.
But it took all of four minutes for the USA to react and get the winner from unlikely hero John Brooks, who was playing his first competitive match for the USA. In a World Cup that saw six teams blow 1-0 leads and lose on Matchday 1, the USA did just the opposite. It blew a 1-0 and turned around and won.
3. Jermaine Jones' equalizer against Portugal.After Germany's 2-2 tie with Ghana the day before, all the talk before the USA-Portugal game in Manaus was how the USA would advance with a win over the Portuguese. Few talked about the possibility of a loss to Portugal that would have wiped out the USA's advantage gained in Natal, but it again recovered from another setback -- conceding an early goal to Portuguese and in the worst possible way, a missed defensive clearance by Geoff Cameron leading to Nani's 5th-minute goal.
But again, the USA responded. It attacked and attacked and took an hour, but Jermaine Jones' equalizer put the USA back in the driver's seat. The goal -- one of the best of many good goals from distance at the World Cup -- was a reward for Jones' play in all three games, where he was the best U.S. player.
4. Ghana's meltdown.Ghana was given new life when the USA had to settle for a 2-2 tie with Portugal, but instead of building on the 2-2 tie of its own against Germany in one of the best games of the World Cup, the Black Stars self-destructed. Instead of preparing for the Portugal game, players and Ghana Football Association officials squabbled over missing bonuses.
Problems between the players and the Ghana Football Association are nothing new -- most of the key players have quit the national team at some point in their career -- but it reached a head when players demanded cash -- $3 million in bills -- be flown in from Accra and when Sulley Muntari (already suspended for the Portugal game) and Kevin Prince-Boateng (always at odds with Coach Kwesi Appiah) were sent home.
Frankly, the Black Stars never looked like beating Portugal, even when they equalized on Asamoah Gyan's goal.
Photo: Perry McIntyre/isiphotos.com
5. First-half stalemate in Recife. The ultimate test for the USA was always going to come against Germany. Not only did the Americans need to overcome the disappointment of conceding an equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time -- "We could taste the second round," said defender Matt Besler-- but they also had to overcome the hangover of Manaus. The four teams before them that played in Manaus all lost their next game.
The USA could survive a loss in Recife, but it would only be in danger of going out if it got blown out to the Germans. The USA was under immediate pressure from the Germans but survived an early onslaught and got out of the first half at 0-0. Like so many of his moves in the tournament, Klinsmann's decision to insert Omar Gonzalez for Cameron paid off as the LA Galaxy defender had a strong first half in his first World Cup start to help put the USA in a position to advance.
Portugal, not suffering from any Manaus hangover, did the rest.