Americans earn spot at the big boys' table

American team shows they belong in the game

So what were you worried about?

The Americans lost the battle but won the war.

Make no mistake: Escaping alive from the Group of Death and living on to fight another day is one of the greatest achievements in the history of U.S. soccer. To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, it may even be their finest hour.

Before the tournament began, I tipped the U.S. to make the knockout stage ahead of Portugal (before I get too smug, I also predicted Spain to reach the semifinals), and the Americans fully deserve their qualification.

For the first time in the 84-year history of the World Cup, two of the top four countries on the planet were grouped. The United States also drew the short geographical straw and had to crisscross Brazil with the toughest travel schedule of all 32 competing nations. And 23 minutes into the first match, they lost forward Jozy Altidore, the fulcrum for most American attacks.

They had to take on Portugal, ranked fourth in the world with the current global player of the year, in the steamy jungle cauldron of Manaus. Three days later, they were off to storm-lashed Recife to face the mighty German juggernaut. There’s no doubt the USA had to do this the hard way.

On Thursday, Germany controlled possession for long stretches — but for most of the match, that control was what Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger once called “sterile domination,” and U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was hardly tested.

The Germans attacked from the start — but even with the relentless early assault, they created very few clear-cut chances, though Howard’s handling was superb in the slick, greasy conditions. Indeed, it took a set play for Germany to finally breech the American defense after the break. But even as the Europeans ratcheted up the pressure, they rarely threatened to score.

The U.S. created little in the final third, but by the nature of the situation they didn’t have to; had the United States needed a goal, it may have been different.

Remember that the Germans are soccer aristocrats who were the top scorers in European qualifying and have made it to 15 World Cup quarterfinals in a row. In the downpour, they zipped the ball around with speed and panache, as you would expect from a team flooded with players from the cream of Europe’s clubs.

But with more composure in the penalty box, the Americans may even have snatched an unlikely late draw in injury time. Not bad for a country starting World Cup debutant Brad Davis, born in a town in Missouri that few Europeans even would have heard of.

I’ll confess to a wee bit of nervousness with 10 minutes to go: The Americans’ progress balanced on a knife edge. They were losing to Germany, and Ghana was level with Portugal at 1-1. I was following that game on my laptop, and Ghana had chances to score the goal that would’ve knocked out the United States. Four years of qualifying, months of preparation, two weeks of first-round action — and still these final group games hinge on split-second events.

Thankfully and ironically for the U.S., Cristiano Ronaldo — the preening superstar who almost sank the Americans’ hopes of qualification with his laser-precision cross in the dying minutes of the previous match — scored the goal that secured U.S. passage to the final 16.

The U.S. has earned its place in the knockout round.

As I might say, the lads did brilliant. As my daughter could put it, the guys were awesome. But however you phrase it, they deserve their success in the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth.

American soccer proved to the world that it belongs at the big boys’ table.