It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Clint Dempsey’s belly button now has as many World Cup goals as Wayne Rooney. And Jermaine Jones played so well that after the game the entire French team surrendered to him.
True story: when I was a kid, my father and I used to play ping pong. By play I mean he would beat the bejebus out of me game after game. No skunk rules. No gimmies. He would just smoke me. Over ten years the game count was conservatively 500 to nothing. Then one day I won. Last night against Portugal, a country of new American soccer fans learned a truth my father taught me over those 500 games: without the agony of defeat there’s no thrill of victory, and a victory given to you is no victory at all.
No interesting story ever started, “Everything was pretty good, and then not much happened and everything kept being pretty good still.” It didn’t take long for U.S. vs. Portugal to get…interesting. In the 5th minute Portuguese midfielder Miguel Veloso sent a left-footed cross into the U.S. penalty area. Geoff Cameron had a simple clearance to make, but whiffed. The ball fell to right winger Nani who buried it. The game was, again, afoot. Bad guys one. Good guys zero.
What happened over the next 90 minutes was more dramatic than a Real Housewives of Atlanta reunion special. There were more ups and downs than a Rihanna music video. Basically the U.S. midfield America’d the crap out of Cristiano Ronaldo and company. In the 64th minute Jermaine Jones uncorked one of the finest shots from distance you’ll ever see to tie the game up. At first viewing it looked like just a pretty good goal. On the replay from the camera directly behind him, watching the ball swerve around Portuguese defender Ricardo Costa into the far post was simply exquisite. You could play the game your whole life and never score a goal like that. The ball hit the net so fast that Portugal’s keeper literally never even moved. Glory, glory, hallelujah. Bad guys one, good guys one.
17 minutes later the U.S. pulled ahead. From midfield, Jones sent a leading pass down the right flank to recent sub DeAndre Yedlin. Yedlin played a hopeful ball from the end line across the six yard box, which pinged off a defender to Michael Bradley at the penalty spot. Bradley’s weak shot bounced off a different defender to Graham Zusi on the left, who crossed to Clint Dempsey’s belly button, which was inexplicably unmarked on the far post. And freedom rang. Bad guys one, good guys two.
I know you all don’t really “get” stoppage time. I don’t blame you. It’s hard to understand, like calculus. Or the lyrics to that song by those Swedish dudes about a fox. All you need to know is that the referee has the only official clock on the field. He stops it for subs, and injuries, and adds time if one of the teams is wasting time intentionally. The U.S. brought their tender one-goal lead into stoppage time, which the referee announced would be five minutes. They maintained that lead until the last of those five minutes.
Michael Bradley usually holds the ball very well. In the 95th minute, he gave it up quicker than an Alabama cheerleader. The ball found its way to Cristiano Ronaldo on the right wing, who set down his purse and went to work. His 40-yard cross to Silvestre Varela was proof why he’s the best player in the world not named Messi. Howard had no chance. Thirty seconds later the final whistle blew, and thousands of fans across the country collectively said, “Wait, what? They’re ending in a tie?” Yes, in the group stage we do that.
The U.S. was thirty seconds away from beating one of the best teams in the world and being the first of the Group of Death to clinch a spot in the knockout round, but instead we get just one point. If you’d have told me before the game that we would score two goals and tie Portugal, I would’ve been happy. Portugal scoring the latest goal ever in the group stage soured the taste but we’re still in a great position. We still got a point.
I can’t explain to you the feeling I got that day I beat my dad in ping pong, but I can tell you that I remember it nearly a quarter century later. On Thursday the U.S. is going to play the last game of the group stage against ze Nationalmannschaft. If we win, we move on. If we tie, we move on. If we lose, it gets iffy. But either way, nothing will have been handed to us. If we do go through to the knockout stage, the U.S. will have earned every freaking second of their passage and come of age while they did it. That means something to the U.S. players, and it means something to the millions of you who are just finding out what this beautiful game is all about. Nobody’s giving us the knockout stage. We’re taking it. So stick around. Thursday is coming. Germany awaits. And the U.S. has a game against an unbeatable opponent to win*.
I believe. God bless the U.S. of Olé.
Find me on the Twitters @fastacton.