Three long years ago, my parents, two close friends, and I were sitting in the Rose Bowl’s south end zone as the US men’s national team took on Mexico in the final game of the 2011 Gold Cup—Central and North America’s biggest international soccer tournament. During the entire humiliation of the USA, the only word from the stands directed at an American was “¡Sientese!” Sit down.
Now, fast-forward three years to today: the only thing about the USMNT that is the same is their name. There’s new, brilliant coaching in German-born Jürgen Klinsman, who’s infused the squad with fresh talent by combing the US for future stars and foreign leagues for dual-nationals that can contribute immediately. The style of play is distinct, not as precise as the Germans or as swift as the Dutch; It’s completely new: aggressive, somewhat sloppy, and chock full of grit. Completely American.
Most notable is what’s going on in the stands. The only country with more fans at this World Cup is Brazil itself. Last Tuesday before the Round of 16 clash with Belgium, the city of Chicago had to move their official watch party from Grant Park to Soldier Field because so many people showed up.
Think about that.
Three years ago, America couldn’t fill its most iconic stadium to watch a championship game against our archrivals.
We just filled up an NFL stadium to watch a game on a giant TV.
And it wasn’t just Chicago. The streets of Baltimore were flowing with red, white and blue. Thousands joined my cousin by Lady Bird Lake in Austin. Offices, summer camps, and entire cities gathered to watch.
Three years ago, America didn’t even know that a soccer game was happening in the Rose Bowl that day.
Last Tuesday, the entire country stopped.
That’s in large part due to the 23 players and 1 coach representing the stars and stripes in Brazil. They never stopped fighting. They had swagger. They had no right being mentioned in the same breath as Argentina and Holland, but every one of them believed they could go toe-to-toe with any team in the world. Jürgen pulled out every trick, calling out referees and managers and writing get-out-of-work-free cards for anybody with a printer.
It didn’t matter that the majority of those catching the soccer-mania didn’t know what offsides was. Or how stoppage time worked. Or why the goalie can’t run with the ball all the way to the opposite goal. It didn’t matter that they didn’t know what was going on strategically. They loved it, whatever that it was.
Our team wasn’t supposed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen. We weren’t even supposed to win a game. Then came Ghana, where we looked worse than even the most pessimistic American could have imagined. Yet in the 86thminute, John Brooks’ forehead unleashed the first case of soccer-mania that infected us all.
Against Portugal, the Americans played better than any US squad ever has. Jermaine Jones scored the most incredible goal in America’s history, with Clint Dempsey adding the country’s first crotch-goal as well. And then with seconds left, Ronaldo sent a perfect ball into the box with Silvestre Varela there to center it and tie it up. It was like we were Charlie Brown, the win a football, and Portugal Lucy. The game should have sent the country into pandemonium. Instead, it sent me into a dark depression for days.
Then came the shockingly respectable showing against Germany. During the 1-0 loss that still felt like a win, Germany looked the part of the superior squad. But the difference wasn’t as noticeable as it normally is for Team USA.
And the non-humiliation was just enough. The Group of Death behind them, our Yanks were headed for a Round of 16 match with Belgium.
You all know what happened then.
And yes, if you told me before the Ghana game that we would advance and then lose in the Round of 16, I would be ecstatic. Yes, Jürgen’s boys overachieved. But when a team was so close, had so many opportunities, could have put soccer in America on the level of the NBA and MLB, the loss was more disappointing than had we never scored a goal the whole tournament.
Wondo had an open net and somehow still hit it 20-feet above the crossbar.
There was the extra time free-kick featuring pinball passing and not one shot on goal.
There were crosses.
So many opportunities. All but one wasted.
One too few.
And because of that, here we are, a nation without a team left standing.
I want to be thrilled with the result. At the very least, the sport finally got over the hump of only a cult-following. The old joke within soccer circles is that soccer is America’s sport of the future (since 1972). Now it’s safe to say that soccer is America’s sport of the present (since 2014).
I should be nodding my head in approval as all of ESPN’s talking heads praise the our team’s performance.
I should be getting excited about Bayern Munich’s wünderkid Julian Green and Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem as they lead a new generation of US teams.
But I keep going back to the wide open net in Salvador and Chris Wondoloski’s face as he sent the ball that could have been American’s Miracle on Ice moment up to the crowd.
I shouldn’t be so down, but how can everybody else be so up?
When those opportunities come, you have to take them. We should have been gearing up for Messi and Argentina on July 5, effectively extending Fourth of July celebrations an extra day. TV ratings would be, according to an ESPN executive, as high or even higher than a Super Bowl.
Soccer in America could have had better ratings than a Super Bowl.
The fact that we are having the conversation of what could have been is a success in its self. But we still use the words “what could have been”.
What should have been.
Today, nearly a week after the loss, I’m bitter. I’m sad. I can’t stop thinking about the hoards of what if’s.