The United States had to lose; they had to go home. It was in the nature of things.
Soccer is strange, in that it isn't very strange at all. One would think that such a low-scoring game would lend itself to randomness, to the odd fairytale ending, to relatively shitty teams fluking their way into the history books. This doesn't happen.
In the end, soccer doesn't leave much room for hope. Quality always wins out, and nowhere is this more obvious than the World Cup. Every four years, 32 teams descend upon a nation to compete for the title of best team in the world. The tournaments, as we have already seen this year, appear crazy in the moment, close up. But when the smoke clears, the best teams in the world always emerge unscathed, victorious. After a hectic group stage, all eight group winners won in the round of 16. Looking back, seven of eight group winners advanced in 2010, and no one was surprised when Spain hoisted the trophy at tournament's end. Italy were the world's best team in 2006. Brazil had the best collection of talent in 2002, as France did in 1998. So it goes.
Soccer is different from hockey, or baseball, or football, or college basketball, in that it's coldly predictable, for mysterious reasons that no one can really adequately explain. Cinderella doesn't exist in this world—there are no Miracles on Ice, no 1969 New York Mets, no Buster Douglases—and through that specific lens, if you were so inclined, you could call it un-American.
USMNT manager Jürgen Klinsmann understood this, and said as much before the tournament.
"We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet," Klinsmann told The New York Times. "For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament."
It was true. The United States aren't a world soccer superpower, and to make matters worse, they were drawn into the Group of Death, the most difficult in the tournament. Not only that, but their group stage schedule ensured that they'd be traveling farther than any other nation in the tournament, and that they were to play in the steamy, hellish city of Manaus located in the rainforest.
Still, the manager's frankness sparked an outcry all through the country, with the loudest yelps coming from ESPN columnist-cum-talking head Michael Wilbon, who called Klinsmann gutless and told the German to "get out of America." Klinsmann and the USMNT flew to Brazil for the tournament, but did so without Landon Donovan, considered the greatest American soccer player ever. Instead, he brought players like Julian Green, Chris Wondolowski, and Brad Davis. The decision felt cynical. It felt like, before the tournament even kicked off, Klinsmann had already given up.
It only took one minute into the match against Ghana for everything to change, when captain Clint Dempsey cut from left to right inside the box and slotted a shot off the far post and into the back of the net. We allowed ourselves to hope, even when Ghana threw their might against the U.S. defense, and even after they equalized. The United States game-winner was a header from 21-year-old center back John Brooks, who'd entered the game at the half, and wasn't really expected to play in the tournament at all. His triumph was a fairytale in miniature, the kind of thing that could almost get you believing in the impossible.
But in the first half of the match, the Americans had lost starting striker Jozy Altidore to a hamstring injury. He'd miss the rest of the tournament. Altidore is not a particularly good player, and in any case, he'd just come off a comically bad year for English club Sunderland, where he tallied just one goal and an assist in 31 appearances. Still, he is one of the USMNT's best players, and the loss of his physical presence and ability to hold up play meant that Klinsmann and the USMNT would have to completely change their tactics for the duration of the tournament, so that at times they looked like something out of an archaic black-and-white film of England in the 1950s.
If this was the death knell, the Americans didn't realize it. Without Altidore, the USMNT traveled to Manaus for a match against Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Americans played the game of their lives in the rainforest against the No. 4 team in the world. They outplayed the Portuguese. They drew.
Next, they faced tournament favorites Germany in a stadium in a city flooded from rain, and once more we allowed ourselves to hope. The Germans destroyed the United States, but broke through only once, and even though they lost, the USMNT had done the improbable and—with an assist from Portugal—advanced to the knockout stages, where Belgium awaited.
The Belgians, stacked as they were, struggled through the group stage of the tournament, and so again, American fans allowed themselves to hope. Hell, some of us even felt confident.
But fairytale endings in sports are about randomness, which is to say that they're about undeserving teams winning. Belgium were the better team with the better players. The United States were overmatched, but they tried anyway.
More than anything, the Americans fought, out of pride and out of fear and out of hope. Old, makeshift left back DaMarcus Beasley was ferocious. Michael Bradley, who'd been conspicuously absent for a majority of the tournament, was everywhere. When Fabian Johnson couldn't continue after pulling his hamstring, speedy 19-year-old DeAndre Yedlin entered at right back and looked a constant threat until the final whistle.
They were demolished.
The Americans almost conceded a goal 40 seconds into the match, but Belgium were denied by Tim Howard, who, in his greatest and maybe final performance on the national team, would have to make 15 more saves throughout the game, the most of any keeper in 50 years. Belgium finished the match with 39 shots, the fourth-highest since 1966. These were hockey numbers.
After 90 minutes, though, somehow the game was tied. Then, 30 seconds before overtime, American poacher Chris Wondolowski found himself free, six yards from goal, with a chance to put the Americans through. He missed.
Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku was introduced in the first minute of overtime, and two minutes later, he created a Kevin De Bruyne goal. In the 105th minute, Lukaku scored. It was over. American fans began to mourn.
The national team, however, didn't. Klinsmann introduced Julian Green, America's latest crowned savior, after the goal. In the 107th minute, Green sliced into the box from the left, and on his first touch, Green volleyed a chipped Bradley pass into the net. This, too, was a fairytale in miniature. Americans everywhere gasped. Again, we hoped.
In the second half of overtime, the United States dominated the Belgians. Seven of the USMNT's 17 shots came in the last 15 minutes. Six minutes before time, the Americans executed a perfect set piece that found Clint Dempsey in on goal, six yards out. He missed. Then the final whistle blew, and Belgium emerged the deserved winners.
Through a specific, objective lens, it would have been a travesty, an affront to the game itself, if the United States had won. And this is what Klinsmann was talking about before the tournament. His message has never been that this country can't win—it's that it can't yet, because it hasn't earned it and because there are no shortcuts. The Americans were doomed by history and by the nature of the game before they ever touched down, destined to be trumped by teams that looked at soccer as religion, to teams that prepared for decades to win this very tournament, to teams that deserved it more.
And through this specific lens, we can truly appreciate the beauty of the USMNT's World Cup. Klinsmann spoke about the tournament as if the die was already cast because it was. In the end, the Americans won, then drew, then lost twice. They were an also-ran, completely mediocre, ousted before the tournament truly began in earnest, and will be forgotten to almost all in a few years' time.
They weren't close to winning the World Cup, just as they won't be in 2018, or in 2022. Because their death was always certain, though, what mattered wasn't what happened, but how. It would've been no great shame or surprise if they'd given in to nihilism, but even though the Americans only briefly played well, they still fought valiantly, against the very nature of soccer itself, until they were cut down by an overwhelming foe and carried out on their shields.
We knew how it would end, and still we applauded. They couldn't have done any better, or any more.
Photo via Getty; Art by Jim Cooke