June 27, 2014 at 1:00 am

United States deserves credit for unlikely run to knockout stage

Michael Bradley of the United States challenges Thomas Mueller of Germany during their Group G match Tuesday. (Robert Cianflone / Getty Images)

To cheat Death is a tall order, but that’s what the U.S. men’s soccer team has done.

They are advancing in the World Cup and will play Tuesday against Belgium. They won their place as one of the 16 best soccer teams on the planet despite losing 1-0 to Germany on Thursday.

Despite playing most of their three games without their top striker, Jozy Altidore.

Despite a travel schedule that sent them from the jungle of Manaus 1,760 miles to the coast of Recife.

Despite weather that included 100-plus degree temps and flooding.

And despite competition that consisted of Germany, Portugal and Ghana — aka the Group of Death.

“For sure, something to be proud of,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “It’s important to be happy, important to be proud of it. But now let’s stay focused on what this is all about. In the big picture, we’ve not done anything yet.”

Oh, but they have.

Few predicted they would advance to the knockout rounds when the group pairings were announced in December.

Germany and Portugal, two of the most prestigious countries in the sport — featuring two of the world’s best players in Thomas Muller and Cristiano Ronaldo — were the class of the group. And Ghana had knocked the U.S. out of consecutive World Cups.

On top of that, coach Jurgen Klinsmann had taken a bunch of young, inexperienced players with him to Brazil.

Then Altidore got hurt minutes into the opener. Then Clint Dempsey had his nose broken on a defender’s shin. Then Bradley, arguably the team’s best player, seemed to lose his mojo and become a liability with too many turnovers and not enough play-making.

But the U.S. overcame it all. The doubt and criticism. Ghana. A devastating, last-minute tie to Portugal. The inexperience of several key players. The intense heat of Game 2. The relentless rain of Game 3.

It subdued all the odds to earn a special place in American sports history.

It makes you wonder: Can this team be counted out moving forward?

It takes on Belgium in the round of 16 on Tuesday. A win likely sets up a date with Argentina, a title contender.

This team has some intangibles it can ride, a la the 2002 squad that made it to the final eight before barely losing to Germany.

This U.S. installment is a magnet for drama. It has a penchant for dangling the nation on the edge of heartbreak every time it plays. It is just good enough to make winning possible, just flawed enough to make defeat an option. But it’s also just hungry enough to keep fighting.

The game with Germany wasn’t as thrilling, or inspiring, as the two previous games. Certainly not as emotional as winning would have been. But Portugal’s concurrent 2-1 win over Ghana negated the need for a U.S. win — or even a tie. Torrential rains and focused Germans increased the degree of difficulty.

It takes a real appreciation for World Cup soccer to fully understand what the Americans pulled off. Group play, especially in this daunting of a quartet, is all about survival.

That seems to be how this team rolls.

After all, it just cheated Death.

Round of 16

All games on ESPN, CBC and Univision unless noted

SATURDAY

■Game 49: Brazil

vs. Chile, noon ABC

Game 50: Colombia

vs. Uruguay, 4 p.m. ABC

SUNDAY

Game 51: Netherlands

vs. Mexico, noon

Game 52: Costa Rica

vs. Greece, 4 p.m.

MONDAY

Game 53: France

vs. Nigeria, noon

Game 54: Germany

vs. Algeria, 4 p.m.

TUESDAY

Game 55: Argentina

vs. Swizterland, noon

Game 56: Belgium

vs. United States, 4 p.m.

Quarterfinals

FRIDAY, JULY 4

Game 57: Game 49 winner

vs. Game 50 winner, 4 p.m.

ESPN2

Game 58: Game 53 winner

vs. Game 54 winner, noon

SATURDAY, JULY 5

Game 59: Game 51 winner

vs. Game 52 winner, 5 p.m.

ABC

Game 60: Game 55 winner

vs. Game 56 winner, noon

Semifinals

TUESDAY, JULY 8


Game 61: Game 57 winner

vs. Game 58 winner, 4 p.m.

WEDNESDAY, JULY 9


Game 62: Game 59 winner

vs. Game 60 winner, 4 p.m.

Third place

SATURDAY, JULY 12


Game 63: 4 p.m.

Championship

SUNDAY, JULY 13

Game 64: 3 p.m. ABC