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Team USA achieves its first goal: Advancing to the knockout round

June 26, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
Despite a 0-1 defeat to Germany, U.S. fans cheered as their team advanced to the knockout round of 16 teams in the World Cup. Judy Woodruff turns to Matthew Futterman of The Wall Street Journal in Brazil to discuss the evolution of Team U.S.A., how the numbers added up to push them to the next level and why World Cup fever is spreading among American viewers.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: An important moment for the U.S. soccer team today. It advanced to the knockout round of 16 teams in the World Cup. That’s just the first time that the U.S. men’s team has ever done that in successive Cups, but it came only after a big assist from Portugal.

In cities across the country, they cheered on the U.S. team against Germany. From Chicago, to New York, to Seattle, thousands of fans took a cue from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The team tweeted a tongue-in-cheek note from him excusing employees from work and imploring bosses to be understanding and even to take the day off themselves to watch.

For many at this outdoor watch party in Washington, D.C., that was more than enough encouragement to chuck work for the day.

MATT ZELLER: I don’t even know if they know I’m here, but I don’t care. It’s well worth it. Go, United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Indeed, the World Cup has generated much more buzz in the U.S. than ever before, with record TV ratings. Even today’s 1-0 loss to Germany proved only a momentary disappointment. Thanks to Portugal’s win over Ghana, the U.S. advanced anyway to the knockout round of 16 teams. The Americans play again next Tuesday.

More on this moment for the American team and the World Cup fever among fans in the U.S.

Matt Futterman was at the match, and he joins us from Recife, Brazil.

Matt Futterman, welcome.

So, the good news is, the Americans advanced, but they did lose to Germany today. What happened?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Well, this is just one of those weird things in sports.

To be frank, this has been one of the weirdest days in sports. There are — there were flood-like rains here in Recife, in Brazil. The Americans played this game against Germany. Nobody was allowed to warm up on the field because it was so flooded, and they thought it was going to get damaged. They came out. They held on for a 1-0 loss, but this is a situation in international soccer where a loss is almost as good as a win.

They’re moving on to the knockout round, the final 16. That’s the first goal that every team that comes to the World Cup wants to accomplish. They pulled that off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So explain quickly, for those who don’t follow soccer, why they move on.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: They move on because, in World Cup soccer, you play a round-robin in your group. You get three points for a win, one point for a draw, no points for a loss.

They had a win and a draw. That gave them four points. They — that tied them with Portugal for second place. But they had a better goal differential than Portugal, which got slaughtered in its first game by Germany 4-0. Today, the Portuguese won 2-1. That eliminated Ghana. And it tied them with the U.S., but the U.S. had a better goal differential. So the U.S. moves on to Salvador to play what might be Belgium and what might be Algeria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, talk about this team, this U.S. team. What do you see in them? How are they evolving?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Well, they are evolving. They stood toe to toe with Germany, which is one of the best teams in the world. They didn’t dominate the game in any way. In fact, they got dominated.

But when you looked up at the end of the day, they were only a goal — they were only a goal down. And they actually nearly scored to tie it up in the final seconds. And the interesting thing is, they have moved on, but they’re really not satisfied. They feel like they can do more. They feel like they can win more games, and they’re fighting for respect.

This is the United States. It’s not really historically a great soccer country. They want to make a name for themselves. They want to do what they have done the last few days, which is go toe to toe with the best teams in the world. They think they can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do you think making the difference? You have said it twice. They have gone toe to toe. What’s giving them the confidence? What’s changed?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Well, Judy, I think the biggest change is their coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, who was a superstar for Germany in his playing career.

He became the coach of Germany for the 2006 World Cup, and he really sort of revolutionized the way Germany plays soccer. They used to be very defensive. Now they’re very attack-minded, very offensive-minded. And he took on the U.S. job in 2011, and he really challenged these players to sort of get to the next level, as he always tells them.

He’s never satisfied with what they have done. He will — he — no sooner had they qualified for the knockout round then he’s telling them, that’s fine, but now the tournament really begins.

That’s kind of going to be a bit of a shock to most American sports fans, most American soccer fans, who have been on tooth and nail the last 10 days watching this team. But, in Klinsmann’s mind, he’s a world champion. This isn’t what he came here for. This isn’t what you play the game for, just to qualify for the next round. You play to play against the best teams on the biggest stage in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s also an evolution among the fans, Matt Futterman. What do you see there among the Americans who are there to watch these games?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Well, the — there was a lot of Americans who came here to Recife who actually couldn’t get to the game because the flooding was so bad. Actually, some of the players’ families didn’t even make it to the game, apparently.

But the ones who did get here — and there were thousands of — thousands who did get here — they’re loud. There are screams of USA, USA throughout the stadium, not quite as loud as the screams of the Germans, but, then again, they were winning. But when it was all over, it was a real celebration by a sort of number of people that you just wouldn’t have seen from the U.S. 20 years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And a lot of excitement among fans here in the U.S. People, as we just saw, really did take off from work to watch this game today.

Do you think this is the kind of excitement that lasts, that’s sustainable?

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: I think it’s sustainable, as long as this team — as long as this team keeps winning. Jurgen Klinsmann has a contract through 2018.

I think, whatever happens, now that they got out of this so-called group of death, with Germany, the second-ranked team in the world, Portugal, the fourth-ranked team in the world, and Ghana, probably the best team in Africa, is — you know, is they need to just — they need to give it a good fight and show that they are as good as some of these great teams.

And if they can do that and hold their heads high, I think people are going to be paying attention to this sport for a long time to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On to the next one.

Matt Futterman covering the World Cup for The Wall Street Journal today in Recife, Brazil, thank you.

MATTHEW FUTTERMAN: Thanks, Judy.