TOPICS > World > Sports

Can U.S. break away from World Cup ‘group of death’?

June 23, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
U.S. soccer fans watched Portugal extinguish an American victory with less than a minute left. The match ended in a tie of 2-2, but a win by the U.S. would have carried the team to the next round of the World Cup. To assess the U.S.’ chances for victory — or at least survival — Gwen Ifill talks to Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: This World Cup, and the interest surrounding the U.S. team, is drawing big numbers. More than 24 million watched it yesterday, making it the most watched soccer match in America ever, 18 million on ESPN and six million more on Univision. That’s more viewers than for game three of the World Series or the 2012 Rose Bowl.

And the outcome was more dramatic than either of those big-ticket sporting events.

A collective groan of disbelief echoed through downtown Chicago Sunday evening as thousands of U.S. soccer fans watched Portugal snatch away an American victory with less than a minute left in the match, ending the game in a 2-2 draw. A win by the American squad would have carried them into the next round of the World Cup.

Just 15 minutes before Portugal tied the match, U.S. fans across the country cheered as American team captain Clint Dempsey put his team ahead 2-1. Team USA next faces off against Germany on Thursday. In Brazil, fans of the red, white and blue remained optimistic.

LINCO COCEA, U.S. Soccer Fan: I thought we were going to win, but, in the last couple of minutes they made a goal. That’s soccer. But now we have just got to win or tie against Germany, and we will be still looking pretty.

GWEN IFILL: Sunday’s nail-biter was just the latest match that kept fans on the edge of their seats throughout the first round. Only a handful of teams have been eliminated, and television ratings have hit record highs.

Does a path to victory, or at least survival, exist for America’s new sporting obsession? We’re joined again by Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal. He is in Brazil and he attended yesterday’s breathtaking match.

Matt, it seemed to us here that this was even more exciting than usual.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Yes, this was a pretty stunning matchup in the Amazon, the capital of the Amazon, in Manaus, where it was scorchingly hot, the players really suffering on the field there, but really playing literally until the very last breath.

Looked like the Americans were going to eke out the victory. And then Portugal scored that last-second goal, and if there is such a thing as a brutal, heartbreaking draw, this was one.

GWEN IFILL: It’s one thing to sit in a bar at home or in your easy chair and watch this kind of game and scream along. It is another thing to be in the stadium right there. Was it as dramatic there as it seemed here?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, there were thousands of Americans in that stadium, but, also, you know, Brazil shares a language with Portugal, and this was a very Portuguese-centric crowd. Every time Cristiano Ronaldo touched the ball, they were screaming for him. They were urging Portugal on. They loved that team. They wanted to see them survive.

And they’re still alive, Portugal, but just by the skin of their teeth. They really needed a win yesterday. And, you know, give credit to the Americans. No one gave them a chance to get out of what everyone called the group of death heading into this tournament. And here they are, all they need is a draw or a win on Thursday against Germany and they will move on.

GWEN IFILL: I love that, group of death.

This is what you wrote about Cristiano Ronaldo. You said he doesn’t like to just beat opponents, as much as obliterate them. He is quite the player in this.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Yes, and there were some outrageous moments, especially early in that first half, where he was sort of dancing on the ball in a way that, you know, really sort of thrilled everybody. And he is quite a character.

He scores goals, rips off his shirt, flexes his muscles. Didn’t get a chance to do that last night. Part of the reason is, he is suffering with a little bit of a knee injury. And you could see that. He was missing that sort of — that last gear that he usually has that he kicks in and does these incredible diagonal runs across the field and catches up with these passes.

And there’s nobody that can stay with him. He seems like he’s faster with the ball than he is without it. And he wasn’t last night. The Americans really held him in check. They had lots of people on him whenever he got the ball, except for in that final play, where he was one-on-one with the DaMarcus Beasley, and he managed to get off really the perfect cross to his teammate cutting across the penalty area for the header that tied the game.

GWEN IFILL: Can we talk about that tie, Matt? Because, here in the United States, our most famous sports have overtime. But we — this tie kept the U.S. alive, even though it was a huge disappointment. How does — try to explain that to us.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Well, I know. It seems almost un-American that, in sort of the greatest sporting event in the planet, you could actually have ties.

But, you know, soccer is a sport where goals are incredibly precious and a hard-fought draw is — it’s a worthwhile result in a lot of ways. You get three points for a win, one point for a tie, no points for a loss. You play three games in group play. Whoever has the most points — the two teams with the most points at the end of group play, they move on to the knockout round; 16 teams move on to the knockout round, and most Americans will be very happy to know, in a knockout round, there are no ties.

That’s when we get into overtime, and then ultimately a penalty shoot-out.

GWEN IFILL: But, in order to get be there, the U.S. still has to face Germany on Thursday. Couldn’t — isn’t there an incentive for that as well?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Absolutely.

I mean, this is — it is so interesting what is coming up here on Thursday. The subtext here is that Jurgen Klinsmann, the American head coach, was a superstar for Germany. He also used to coach Germany. One of his closest friends is the head coach of Germany.

Both teams will move on to the knockout round if they draw. Now, this is the stuff that great conspiracy theories in international soccer are made of. You could have what — you know, both sides could agree for — agree to play to a sort of gentleman’s draw, but Klinsmann assured everybody last night there will be no agreement. There is not going to be — you know, there’s not going to be any talk of both sides sitting back.

They want to go for the win. They want to win the group. And they’re going to have to earn it, because Germany is probably one of the two or three best teams in the world.

GWEN IFILL: And the U.S. has five Germans on its team. This is amazing. This is a like a sports soap opera.

Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal, thanks for keeping us up to date.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Oh, thanks for having me, Gwen.