Let’s go back and revisit the moment when the U.S. knew it was advancing to the round of 16 for the second straight year — a historic first.
If we’re looking for a singular moment in the U.S.-Germany game, we’ll wander around in the desert for 90 minutes — plus extra time — and find nothing.
The U.S. never scored. No equalizer, no game-winner. They hung on for 90 minutes, which is quite a long moment to choose.
For one moment, we have to look to Portugal and its game against Ghana. Yes, Portugal, those heart-breakers who snatched victory and peace of mind from the U.S. team Sunday.
It was none other than Cristiano Ronaldo who delivered the gift in the 80th minute.
Thank you, Portugal. The U.S. accepts your apology flowers.
The U.S. would have advanced without Ronaldo’s goal. If Portugal and Ghana had tied, that would have been enough for the U.S. to advance to the second round.
If either Portugal or Ghana had won, the U.S. still would have advanced as long as the winner hadn't mustered up enough points to leave subzero goal differential territory, and as long as the U.S. didn't allow the German offense to sink the U.S. differential.
But Ronaldo’s goal let U.S. fans exhale. He struck late enough in the game that the results, as they stood, seemed like they could keep standing.
At that point, the chance that either Ghana or Portugal could win by enough to advance over the U.S. on goal differential was minimal. Ronaldo’s goal didn’t even bring Portugal’s differential out of the negatives.
Germany’s offense is potent, but it probably wouldn’t score three or four times in the closing minutes of the game to drag down the U.S.’s differential meaningfully.
Perhaps even more important, psychologically, Ronaldo’s goal meant Ghana was losing. Ronaldo pushed the team that had eliminated the U.S. in the past two World Cups one step farther away from a three-peat. The farther away, the better.
The U.S. players didn’t see Ronaldo’s goal. They didn’t see him casually hang out in front of the goal as if he were at a park on his lunch break before he knocked in a ricocheting ball that happened to come his way.
But it’s the moment when fans knew. Or at least when they breathed again.