Cast your mind back to November of 2008. What we were watching that month was the start of an era for UC football, though we had no idea of it at the time. Brian Kelly became incredibly fond at that time of saying that every game from then until the end of the season was the new biggest game in UC history. Of course he was not wrong on that, but what he failed to grasp was that the big games would keep on coming. It got to the point in late 2009 where measuring the magnitude of the games compared to last week, let alone the last 10 years, ceased to matter anymore. Each successive game was so much larger than what had come before that looking back no longer provided anything resembling an accurate frame of reference.
Watching the way that the Group of Death has shook out so far it seems clear that this most american of teams is on the verge of something special. Nothing is guaranteed, this is soccer afterall, crazy shit can and almost certainly will happen. However unbelievably a path has emerged for the United States to not merely advance out of the fabled group of death, but to win the damn group.
With Ghana battling Germany in a tight, thrilling 2-2 draw a door has been opened for this US team. A door that many would have found to be unfathomable when the draw was announced in December. The United States could very well top a group at the World Cup outright for the first time ever.
All that must be done is defeat a talented but mentally weak Portugal side that will be without their best central defender Pepe due to suspension. They will also be without first choice left back Fabio Coentrao and first choice forward Hugo Almeida, both out with injuries. They do have Christiano Ronaldo, but he is obviously less than 100 percent and spent the vast majority of Monday's match with Germany pouting in his inimitable way.
In every World Cup there is a favorite who manages to disgrace themselves in truly profound ways while seeing themselves to the door in the group stage. In 2010 two teams did just that, the Italians and the French who both managed to live up to the worst traits of their national stereotypes while underachieving. At this point the Portuguese seem to be on the fast track to joining the English among the disgraced blue bloods. The US can put them on that plane tonight, and in doing so see themselves safely into the knockout round.
Simply getting through to the knockout round would be an immense accomplishment given the draw, it will be for whatever two team get through. But there is another prize that would be there for the taking, winning the group outright. If the US can beat Portugal all they would need is a draw against Die Mannschaft to win the group. The prize isn't winning the group, its the draw.
Winning the group is the difference between a round of 16 matchup with Russia or South Korea,* and a potential quarterfinal match with France (probably) or Nigeria (possibly). Finish 2nd in the group and the US will find themselves facing the much fancied Red Devils from Belgium** in the round of 16. If they should beat the Belgians, Leo Messi and the Argentines await.
*Depending on what happens this afternoon
**A Belgian side that didn't so much beat as eviscerate more or less the same US side in May of last year
Before we can even begin projecting forward, the US must play Portugal in the middle of a jungle. Which brings me back to where I started. This is the biggest day in the history of US soccer for a lot of different reasons. If this team wins tonight they will secure advancement to the knockout rounds in successive world cups for the first time ever. They can put themselves in poll position to top the group for the first time ever. There are so many different ways in which a win by our boys tonight will allow this group of 23 men to make perhaps the biggest mark a US team has made on this tournament, perhaps ever.
On Monday night I, like many of you, found my way to a bar (a BW3's to be exact) so that I could watch that game with like minded folks. I put on my USA shirt. My blue shorts. My red shoes and my team USA elites. I would have worn my scarf, but it was 91 degrees and my hipster level is far less than 100. Regardless of what I was wearing I joined the tourists and locals that packed the place. Though I didn't know it I commenced on what would will prove to be an unforgettable evening. One that will play in snippets and fragments at random intervals for the rest of my life.
The ecstasy after 30 seconds when Clint Dempsey took three deft touches and buried the ball at the far post for an improbable lead. The tense 80 minutes to follow when the US bunkered down and absorbed wave after wave of counterattacks from the Ghanians. The swears of agony and profanity after Andre Ayew's brilliant strike. That river of profanity poured forth from the mouths of everyone from the father with his 10 year old son two tables away to the man at the bartop who looked to be deep into his 70's*
*No offense sir
Four minutes later, another sonic bomb erupted as John Anthony Brooks scored a goal that even he didn't seem to believe in. The wall of sound created by the partons so unnerved our supposedly seasoned sports bar bartender that his eyes momentarily bulged in downright Loony Toons fashion. Not long after play resumed an ear drum and voice destroying rendition of I Believe was started up. I have no idea who started it, I just know that everyone I could see took up the call. All of this I will remember for the rest of my life. The details will surely be embellished, forgotten and transformed as time goes on but the story will never leave me.
But there is one thing that I will never forget about Monday night, and that is being there with my brother. We haven't always had the best relationship. It has been fraught with petty squabbles and occasionally vicious arguments the way that relationships between the middle child and the young gun tend to be. We are polar opposites in so many ways, from our politics to our views on the future which is tied almost completely to the degree of fatalism we each have within ourselves. The one thing that brings us together is soccer, we support different clubs,* follow different leagues and view the quality of MLS is starkly different lights. But we have the national team to bridge those divides. The DVR at our house records every single national team game, and we make sure that the other has seen it before deleting it. That's a level of agreement and communication that doesn't repeat itself very often in our relationship.
*Because of course we do
I bring that back story up because there is one thing that I will never forget about Monday. One thing whose details will never change, which is already etched in stone in my memory...the absolute certainty in my brother's voice when he said that the US will win a World Cup. Its a view that I share with him, I just didn't expect the confidence.
Because the World Cup only happens once every four years there is an element of random chance to who ends up lifting the trophy in the end. In no other sporting event in the world is there such a concept as a legendary loser.* But ask any soccer fan in his 50's or 60's about the Dutch team in 1974, or someone in his 30's or 40's about Brazil in 1982 and you will get the point.
*though Roscoe Smith comes close for college basketball.
For a team like the US to come from far outside the traditional centers of soccer power getting to the pinnacle will take time. There will have to be a team that for once takes the opportunities when they present themselves and capitalize on them. The recent history of US soccer has had no shortage of such opportunities. Against Germany in 2002 in the quarter finals the Americans were better than the Germans, but Michael Ballack got a lucky goal against the run of play and some heroic play from Oliver Kahn in goal to advance. The Americans were the better team against Ghana in 2010 but the Black Stars nicked two goals against the run of play and the US were punished for being wasteful in the final third. And so the better team lost.
So much about who does what in the World Cup comes down to the draw. In some tournaments the draw will just open up for you and beckon you onward. In others it can be a maze with no obvious route out. Today the door is wide open for a potential trip to the quarters for the Americans, this team just needs to walk through it.