By Dan Leach follow Dan @dtmleach
As the final whistle sounded after two completely wild extra time sessions in Salvador, Brazil, the United States Men’s National teams run at the World Cup came to a devastating and brutal halt. This was a Round of 16 game against Belgium where many could make the case that the U.S. didn’t deserve to win and without Superman Keeper Tim Howard, likely would have lost by several goals. Howard broke a modern World Cup record with 16 saves, in comparison, that would be like a hockey goalie making 60.
The loss was devastating, but the road ahead looks so much brighter than just two weeks ago. U.S. Soccer is no longer a joke on the International stage and it has been growing further and further away from that over the past almost 2 decades.
Does the USMNT have a chance to win a World Cup right now? If you are going to be completely honest, absolutely not. What springs so much hope though is it seems that the team is going forward perpetually now after so many disjointed stages during the past 50 years.
The 23 men sent to Brazil were the best the States has ever fielded in a World Cup. They beat a Ghana side that had bedeviled the Americans in the past two World Cups. They outplayed one of the best team in the world in Portugal for 94 grueling minutes and went toe to toe with one of the World Cup favorites most of the way.
Then came the Round of 16 match against Belgium. The USMNT in the Knockout round for the second Cup in a row for the first time in its history, major accomplishment for American soccer in its own right. The team wanted more and so did the over 70 million soccer fans in this country who are growing by the minute.
Wildly out chanced by the Belgians in the first 90 minutes, once again late heroics seemed to rue the day, but a point blank miss by Chris Wondolowski at the end of regulation and then one of the most beautiful free kick attempts you will ever see leading to a Dempsey golden opportunity that would have tied it late in extra time.
Both of those chances would have gone in 8 of 10 times most games, but today they simply couldn’t put the USMNT on the right side of history .
The run in Brazil enthralled so many Americans and showed so many unfair to “The Beautiful Game,” just how special it can be. There were watch parties all over the country for each game , drawing thousands of both rabid soccer fans and those filled with beautiful curiosity as well. 28,000 filled Soldier Field for the game on Tuesday, thousands were in downtown Detroit at Cadillac Square, and countless millions at bars, restaurants, and man/women caves across the nation.
We like winners in America and that is why so many have not jumped on the U.S soccer train. They wonder why is it a good thing just to get to a Knockout Round or to lose to Germany and advance and be happy about it. We are trained in this country that it is all about being a champion, all about being at the top of your proverbial game. That is always the goal for any athlete or team, but for the USMNT it is about progress, not perfection right now. It is about continuing to move forward in a game that is dominated by Europeans and South Americans.
It is similar to how dominating the U.S men’s national team in basketball has largely been since the advent of the sports, but how many nations have started to catch up leading to devastating results for Team USA in before the last Olympics. That is where the USMNT is right now. They are still largely an afterthought by the superpowers of the sport, but those dominant forces are starting to take much more notice.
The Germany’s, Brazil’s, and Argentina’s of the World still do not truly fear the U.S, but they have much more respect for us now. As the game continues to grow in America and the USMNT continues to fill itself with better and better athletes, who also play at the top levels around the world, the sea change will continue forward.
The World Cup is a truly beautiful event showcasing the biggest sport in the world. The fact of the matter is that it only happens every four years, so it would be lunacy to think that this excitement level will be matched again in America until Russia in 2018. What can happen, and what I believe will happen, is so many young athletes that likely would have not even given soccer a try 20, 30 years ago, will have watched what transpired these past two plus weeks and say, “Hey I want to give that a try mom and dad.”
That is how you grow a game, that is how you find a way to compete on the world stage. You need to have your best athletes be part of a game that is played in every corner of the Earth if you want to truly compete. There will never be a time that this country’s best athletes will all gravitate towards soccer like they do with football, basketball, and baseball. But even if just 10-15 percent of them give soccer a try, that will create so many more opportunities for the USMNT to keep this momentum building.
The men that represented our great country in Brazil made us all so proud. Yes, they did not make a miracle run to a Cup Semi or Final. They did not take out one of the best teams in the World along their run. What they did do is give so many millions of American such a special amount of pride. Isn’t that what sports is all about!
We all want to be champions, but sometimes the ride, the journey, is truly the most special part of it all. Hold your heads high Team USA, you are a great example of why we are so proud to be Americans.