This time, I watched from the quiet of my own living room. Just me and the dog and a jar of peanuts. But during the amazing final moments, I imagined what it must be like in all the places where American soccer fans had gathered to watch Sunday’s World Cup match against Portugal.
When Clint Dempsey scored with nine minutes left in normal time, people must have been beside themselves with joy. No doubt, people in bars all over Buffalo and the nation were jumping up and down, chanting at the top of their lungs and getting random beer showers.
And as the seconds ticked away in extra time, with the U.S. clinging to a 2-1 lead, I could envision the celebrations. After all, the U.S. hadn’t won its first two games in the World Cup since 1930. They had never won a Cup game in which they allowed the first goal.
Despite falling behind early, 1-0, the U.S. was less than a minute away from winning its second Cup match and advancing to the knockout (or single elimination) round. As the game wound down, there was talk that it could be the biggest men’s Cup win in the country’s history.
In my mind, I was contemplating the possible parallels between U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and Herb Brooks, the architect of the Miracle on Ice. All right, so I was getting carried away. How often do we have an opportunity to overreact to soccer, for heaven’s sake?
Then it happened. The great Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been decidedly average for nearly two full Cup games, came down the right side with only seconds left in the game and booted a perfect cross to Varela, who headed it past Tim Howard to give Portugal a 2-2 tie.
Really, how good is this stuff? On the very last play, on the biggest stage in all of sports, the best player in the world sets up the goal that keeps his country’s fading Cup chances alive – the latest goal the U.S. has ever allowed in a 90-minute Cup match.
I’m sure U.S. fans were stunned and deflated when Varela found the back of the net, but anyone who loves sport had to marvel at Ronaldo’s feat. We love to see the great ones rise to the biggest moments, and it didn’t get any bigger, or more dramatic, than that gorgeous, clutch feed.
The U.S. is still in good shape in Group G, the Group of Death (is that because they’re giving people heart attacks?). None of the four teams has advanced, but the U.S. can move on with a win or tie against Germany on Thursday. They’re also well-positioned on goal differential.
Germany can also advance with a win or a draw, which makes for an interesting scenario. Neither team needs to win. What if they decide to set up picnic tables on the Brazilian pitch and toast one another over beer and bratwurst for 90 minutes? They’d tie, 0-0, and advance together to the knockout round.
Klinsmann, who coached Germany to the Cup semifinals eight years ago, might have preferred not to go against his native country with a berth on the line. But the competitor in him would surely love to finish first in the group at the expense of the Germans.
The man has had a golden touch with the U.S. team. Klinsmann has made some controversial decisions, like leaving Landon Donovan off the squad and declaring in a New York Times Magazine interview that the U.S. couldn’t win the World Cup (while also taking a shot at Kobe Bryant).
In retrospect, it seems Klinsmann was playing mind games. Maybe he was trying to shake up his players, or perhaps shift the pressure onto himself. But his team has played very well in two games, and most of Klinsmann’s lineup moves have paid off in a big way. The U.S. is capable of making a deep Cup run.
Sunday’s stunning finish was a huge letdown. But American soccer has been the big winner in this World Cup. The response by fans has been unprecedented. There’s a lot of reflex patriotism at work, but the wide-spread Cup enthusiasm suggests that soccer has reached a tipping point of popularity in this country.
Soccer lovers have waited years for the sport to catch hold in the U.S. It has been a cheap punch line for ignorant media types, who liked to dismiss it as boring and devoid of scoring.
But generations of American kids have now played soccer, and they’re watching it in increasing numbers on TV. They’re becoming avid followers of the elite overseas leagues on TV and developing an appreciation for the sport’s nuances and its emotional hold on the rest of the planet.
U.S. fans had to celebrate Sunday’s game. It was exciting and full of great scoring chances. Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, made a couple of terrific saves. The Americans played better than they had in their win over Ghana. It was a fine advertisement for soccer.
The entire event has been sensational so far. That late goal by Portugal was one of the most stunning moments in World Cup history. What’s truly amazing is that so many Americans were caught up in the moment.