SAO PAULO – The US national team gathered to watch the World Cup opener on Thursday evening in a conference room 15 miles west of Arena de São Paulo as refereeing took center stage just 70 minutes into the tournament.
They watched as Brazilian forward Fred went to ground despite minimal contact from Croatia defender Dejan Lovren, Japanese referee Yuichi Nishimura sending the hosts to the spot with the match tied at one and giving Neymar an opportunity he didn't waste.
They read the fuming comments of the aggrieved Croatians, who berated FIFA and Nishimura after what was eventually a 3-1 defeat, suggesting they should just go home now if they weren’t going to be shown the respect they deserve.
More than 12 hours after the fact, the Americans admitted to mixed emotions surrounding the game-changing call. Just don’t expect them to apologize if a similar play goes their way.
“It sucks for Croatia, that’s what I think,” goalkeeper Tim Howard told reporters on Friday shortly before the USMNT departed for Natal, the site of their opener Monday vs. Ghana (6 pm ET, ESPN). “But that’s part of the game.”
“I’ve got no problem with the Brazilian player going down,” he added. “I would encourage my own players, if they feel contact, to go down. It’s the referee’s job, obligation and responsibility to make sure that he gets it right.”
Should the same scenario play out in Natal against Ghana, with perhaps Clint Dempsey or Jozy Altidore earning a dubious spot kick that’s difference between three points and a lesser result, there’s no doubt the US would take it.
After all, those points could be the difference between the knockout stage and a three-and-out. At the end of the day, it’s any means necessary, according to right back DeAndre Yedlin.
“You’re always going to try and get an advantage, no matter what you do, no matter what sport you play,” he said. “You always want to win, so any way you can get an advantage, you do it. Whatever he did – whether he got pulled down or whether he dove – it got him the call and ultimately got them the win.”
And, ultimately, that’s all that matters in a month-long tournament that promises to deliver more controversy as the schedule heats up and the stakes get higher and higher.
Of course, calls could easily go the other way as well, and the US are now well aware – following referee briefings and the happenings on Thursday – that any questionable contact in the penalty area is liable to be punished.
“As me being a defender, that was a tough one to see,” center back Matt Besler told reporters. “But I think it was a good one to see because it’s a lesson that maybe some of us learned just by watching. It’s going to be called tight in the penalty box, so we’ve got to be careful.”
Added his Sporting KC teammate Graham Zusi: “We’ve all been well versed on how the referees are going to be approaching the games."
So did Fred flop? Were the Croatians cheated out of a chance at a historic upset? Frankly, it doesn’t much matter.
“If the penalty is a penalty, I don’t know,” Jermaine Jones told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s not my decision and it’s not my group, so I don’t care what happens in that group. If Brazil wins, Brazilian people are happy, and I don’t want to say more than that.”