Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sometimes a tie is worse than kissing your sister

I would not consider myself such an enormous United States national team fan that I watch every friendly and keep tabs on just who might be a better option than Michael Bradley in the center midfield (answer: probably no one on this roster), but I do follow the team's qualification process and watch when I can. And more to the point, I have put life aside to watch every single U.S. World Cup match since 2002, with the one exception of its Dos a Cero victory over rival Mexico in the round of 16 12 years ago because my alarm somehow failed to go off in time for the 2 a.m. kickoff, as the game was played in Jeonju, South Korea. I have watched those games in basements, living rooms, bars, public parks and once in the empty offices of the Boston Globe's D.C. bureau. This coming Thursday I am taking a personal day from work so I do not have to be distracted during our group play finale against Germany.

Since I first made the World Cup appointment viewing, I have witnessed a heartbreaking quarterfinal loss in which the U.S. went home despite dramatically outplaying the Germans in 2002, a miserable group stage from which the U.S. failed to advance in 2006, a painful 2010 round-of-16 ouster against Ghana in which Asamoah Gyan scored the winner in extra time against the run of play, and a stunning collapse against Mexico in the Final of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

It isn't Northwestern, but the USMNT delivers its fair share of heartbreak.

But with all of those matches burned into my brain, I have never experienced the kind of bitter, broken feeling that seeped into me just before 8 p.m. on Sunday night. The negative shift in emotions was so dramatic that I have yet to entirely process it and couldn't quite bring myself to write about it until 36 hours later. And the U.S. didn't even lose.

Sometimes, though, a draw or a victory feels like a loss when an effectively positive outcome arrives at the expense of brushing with true greatness.  For example, when Mike Mussina famously lost a perfect game on the last strike against the Red Sox in 2001, many players entered the clubhouse feeling as if they had been defeated despite picking up a crucial victory. On a more personal level, my high school football team defeated Newark West Side my senior season for its fourth victory of the season, the most we had managed in years, but when we walked off the field to find a victory by Philipsburg had eliminated us from the state playoff race our win rang hollow.

That was the discontent that didn't so much as seep in Sunday, but rammed itself into the guts of U.S. soccer fans when the Yanks were on the verge of what could very reasonably be argued as their most successful World Cup group performance ever. After a thrilling win against Ghana to open up the tournament, the U.S. was in the position of being able to clinch a spot in the last 16 with a win, albeit an unlikely one, against fourth-ranked Portugal. Things looked bleak after a defensive flub by America's Geoff Cameron led to an early goal for the Selacao, but the U.S. dominated possession for much of the game, pulling level on a remarkable strike by Jermaine Jones and then taking a lead in the 81st minute on a discombobulated play in the penalty area in which Clint Dempsey made the best argument I've seen for thinking with your stomach.

Soccer has a special way about it. Its goals are so rare and so hard fought that the achievement of putting the ball in the net creates its own type of punctuated, spontaneous euphoria. This is a type of involuntary response that is almost unmatched in any other major sport, nearly all of which require a buildup more obvious to see the moment of triumph. I generally prefer watching sports that matter to me in a comfortable room with friends so I can hear announcers and absorb the moment. I find bars distracting. And yet, when it comes to the explosion of scoring a goal in international soccer, there is something about being in a mass of screaming, hugging strangers that is unique and wonderful.

At the moment Dempsey scored I stood in a bar surrounded by a handful of friends and at least 100 people I did not know. When Jones tied the game it was a cathartic release. When Dempsey put the United States ahead it was disbelieving joyful combustion. With a mere 10 minutes to kill, just about the time most European announcers will attempt to bring the drama to a fever pitch by declaring the results' finality (American announcers foment drama by preaching the opposite), the U.S. was unexpectedly on the verge of a ticket out of the group of death. Many pre-World Cup predictions had tabbed the USMNT for a short stay in Brazil, with championship-contending Germany and FIFA No. 4-ranked Portugal the likely bets to survive.

There was screaming. There was anticipation. There was relief. The seconds were ticking down and the U.S. was going to have a worry-free afternoon against a superior German side in its final group match, scouting a round of 16 opponent rather than sweating its chances of having one.

Then Cristiano Ronaldo, who had been relatively ineffective despite being one of the two best players on the planet, made a devastating run seconds from the end of stoppage time and proceeded to break 300 million hearts with a single beautiful cross.

The various factors that soccer and the World Cup draw create, the instantaneous nature of goals, the capricious measuring of stoppage time, the difference between points awarded for a win or a draw make this a rare moment. Never have I watched so much excitement turn to despair so suddenly. The only sporting moment I can think of that is similar was in the 2005 NLCS, when Minute Maid Park in Houston teemed with excitement as the Astros appeared set to win the National League pennant for the first time until Albert Pujols murdered a pitch by Brad Lidge and silenced the building.

There is one hope to cling to in that the Astros did manage to win their first pennant in St. Louis two nights later, and indeed the United States is hardly done. Odds are that the U.S. will still advance pending the outcome of its game with Germany and Portugal and Ghana's final clash, though some scenarios are more likely than others and the chance to win the group is nearly gone. The games are, of course, played for a reason though, and small sample sizes are prone to random, unpredictable outcomes. Even disregarding the fact that Germany is a superior team even if it doesn't always play like it, the angst I have comes less from fearing defeat than from the knowledge that having something is almost always better than the hope of more with the prospect of nothing. Then there is even the prospect that the most cruelly tenuous of tiebreaking scenarios, a 3-nil U.S. defeat combined with a 2-nil Portugal victory, would result in FIFA literally pulling names out of a hat to determine who advances, a situation that has actually happened once before albeit purely for seeding purposes.

In sports there are dozens of cautionary tales of teams that have comes so close only to see greatness slip away. I remember the 1986 Boston Red Sox and witnessed the 2011 Texas Rangers. I had my heart broken by the New Jersey Devils in 1994 and again in 2001. I saw the Giants go from seven minutes away from a division title with an enormous lead against the Eagles to out of the playoffs despite a 10-win season in a matter of two weeks in 2010. I watched the 2013 San Antonio Spurs endure collapse when they were less than a minute from a championship in Game 6 only to lose Game 7 to the Miami Heat. I remember seeing the San Francisco Giants hold a five-run lead a mere five outs away from their first championship in 48 years in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series before they, too, saw their brush with glory disappear.

The history of sports is littered with these kinds of tragic failures to seal the deal, and to be sure, the U.S. had its opportunities to close out the game, most notably when Bradley held the ball in Portugal's half and was dispossessed seconds before the game-ending equalizer. Simply holding the ball or punching it into open space in the Portuguese half would have polished the game off. Rationally, the odds are in the U.S.'s favor, but the fear still nags that perhaps we have missed our chance to truly make a mark on the tournament and provide another turning point in America's quest to be considered among the global contenders.

We'll see on Thursday if lax defending in the closing seconds and a twist of unfortunate fate will doom the U.S. to an exit that was seconds from being a thought of the past. It is very likely that I will spend two hours on Thursday afternoon biting my nails and sweating out heart palpitations. America's survival in the World Cup seems likely, but as one coworker pointed out to me, one of the few scenarios in which the U.S. is ousted, a loss to Germany and a Ghana victory, just might be the most likely. It is very possible, even if it is not probable, that our showdown with Germany in two days will be our last hurrah at a 2014 FIFA World Cup that at one point seemed so full of promise.

And if it is, we will all remember for four years how close we came.


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