RECIFE, Brazil – The rain started falling the night before, and never let up. The heavens dumping on a city whose streets simply couldn’t handle the deluge.
By morning, the rising water swallowed up wheel wells. It lapped against walls and traffic barriers, creeping into buildings unfortunate enough be below flood level. Traffic was snarled for blocks, cars, buses and motorcycles doing their best to stay afloat despite the rising tides.
“The water was almost halfway up some cars,” said Omar Gonzalez, a passenger on the US national team bus that forged its way through the same muck and mire.
If the United States hoped to finish up Group G with a knockout-stage sealing result against Germany at Arena Pernambuco on Thursday, the weather would do them no favors. Nor their families or the legions of fans who had descended here for a match that would help decide who would emerge from the Group of Death.
The bus ride from the edge of the beach – conspicuously papered with shark warnings and red flags – to the stadium, one that would normally take 45 minutes, took nearly two hours. Along the way, American and German fans alike lined up along the roads as traffic came to a standstill and prearranged transport got bogged down or never made it to the final destination at all.
Even the players' families felt the pinch, some completing the arduous journey, some giving up along the way and some not even venturing into the waterlogged crush that awaited outside their hotel.
"Our families didn't even make it to the game,” Gonzalez said. “I'm still not sure where they watched it. I think they were streaming on their phones, and they were all huddled around a couple phones.”
It was just that kind of day all around.
The effect on the crowd was clear as time ticked toward kickoff, pockets of empty red seats standing out as people trickled in as fast as the conditions would allow. On the field, it was the same story, neither team warming up on the playing surface, instead loosening up behind the endlines and forgoing possession or shooting drills.
In the American legs, what Clint Dempsey kindly called “weird preparation” showed.
Rendering all those collusion stories moot, Germany punched the US squarely in the mouth from the first whistle and forced them to parry blows for most of the match. All that talk about playing to win from Jurgen Klinsmann turned out to be a gambit Germany never allowed past the pregame press conference.
"We knew it would be tricky because a tie was enough," Klinsmann said. "It wasn't easy to handle it mentally. We had too much respect early."
But the US held on for the first 45 minutes, as the stadium filled in and two fanbases with more in common than they might like to admit traded chants while the rain poured down around them. Ghana even scored an own-goal, the US’ place in the knockout round regardless of the result in Recife feeling more and more secure.
Then Thomas Müller struck after halftime, as he so often does, and the Africans followed up with a goal from their own talisman, Asamoah Gyan. Suddenly another Ghana goal would send the Americans crashing out, one Cristiano Ronaldo moment in Manaus destroying dreams that would take four years to rebuild.
For 23 minutes, the United States’ fate hung in the balance. For 23 minutes, Ghana once again held the Americans' fate in their hands.
Truthfully, it didn’t much matter what the US did on the rain-swept pitch at Arena Pernambuco. What mattered most was that the US’ faithful bugaboo failed to complete the rousing comeback that would deliver Ghana a third straight trip to the knockout round.
In the US, everyone from President Obama on down was glued to the action in Recife. In the press box, monitors streamed the events in Brasilia, tiebreakers deciphered in real time. On the field, those in red, white and blue played on, goalkeeper Tim Howard the only one in the know.
“We had one eye – or ear – on the other result,” he said.
But by the time Ronaldo did to the Africans what he’d done to the US four days before, this time pouncing on a dreadful goalkeeping error to ensure the US would be moving on, Matt Besler had intercepted goalkeeper coach Chris Woods’ signals. Soon the whole backline knew the scoreline.
It remained a mystery up the pitch, however, as Dempsey and the rest pushed for the equalizer, making the moment of realization at the final whistle even sweeter. They hugged. They danced. They’d made it to the money round for the second straight World Cup, a first in US history.
As Klinsmann had preached so many times before, it was all about results. And although the US came out on the wrong side on a rainsoaked day in Recife, the end result was the one they’d yearned for all along, the one most outside their locker room believed was likely a step too far.
“It is a little bit of an odd feeling because you lost the last game,” US Soccer president Sunil Gulati said, “but we’re dancing.”
In the rain no less, and deservedly so.