MADRID, Spain — Before the United States-Soviet Union hockey game at the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament in Lake Placid, Al Michaels famously told his national audience, “For people who don’t know the difference between a blue line and a clothesline, it’s irrelevant.”
I couldn’t help but think of that quote last night while surrounded by a sea of fellow Americans at an Irish pub in Madrid. Some could name a few players, and maybe a few knew the stakes of this specific match against Portugal, but it was pretty clear from the onset that most of the red, white, and blue clad fans had shown up for patriotism and beer. And, putting the soccer snob in me aside, I was totally fine with it.
I recalled how I had first been drawn to love the United States Men’s National Team. It wasn’t an appreciation for the relative strengths and weaknesses of a 4-4-2 versus the 4-3-3. It was the simple sight of players, my countrymen, wearing those three famous colors and taking on the world.
The crowd was a pleasure to watch with right until the end. We all groaned and cursed together when Geoff Cameron temporarily lost all foot-eye coordination and gifted Nani a fifth-minute goal1.
In spite of the early blow, the crowd kept the faith. Screams of “I Still Believe” echoed around the bar, a reference to the “I Believe That We Will Win” chant that many had been introduced to just minutes earlier. As the American chances stacked up – Fabian Johnson curled a long shot just wide, Clint Dempsey put a free kick just over the bar after Johnson was fouled, and Michael Bradley played Dempsey in beautifully for a tight angle shot that was turned behind for a corner – I told anyone who would listen that the United States would surely score a goal in this game. It was just a question of whether they could keep Portugal from burying another.
Halftime only served to further build the bar’s collective blood pressure. But the USMNT came out sloppy and Portugal looked likely to double their lead. Eventually the Americans found their footing and looked to be level when Johnson took off on another rampaging run down the right side before cutting it back to Bradley. With Portuguese keeper Beto down and out of the picture, the midfielder was staring at a gaping net, but defender Ricardo Costa produced a spectacular goal line clearance to keep Portugal ahead.
Finally, the breakthrough came courtesy of a 64th-minute Jermaine Jones firecracker, and the bar erupted. The crowd found their voice and executed a perfect rendition of “I Believe” that had the place shaking. Everyone looked, sounded, and felt like diehard soccer fans.
In the 72nd minute Jürgen Klinsmann brought on inexperienced fullback DeAndre Yedlin for an ineffective Alejandro Bedoya, in what felt like an offense for defense switch. It seemed like the German manager was willing to play for the draw. But, for the second match in a row, his substitution instincts proved spot on as the speedy Yedlin made a marauding run down the right that ended with Dempsey chesting Graham Zusi’s short cross into the back of the net in the 81st minute.
After the introduction of John Brooks paid dividends with the game-winning header against Ghana, Klinsmann again displayed his Midas touch by opting for Yedlin in spite of his youth and inexperience. All was pandemonium at the pub, and new rounds U-S-A chants and “I Believes” made ears ring.
The minutes ticked down and the crowd grew restless. Many looked like Ricky Bobby in a television interview – unsure what to do with their hands as nerves took over.
A friend tapped me and asked how much stoppage time I thought would be added. As I responded four minutes, Omar Gonzalez stood up to be subbed on for Zusi, and I revised my estimate to five, which the fourth official soon showed. Ultimately, that last extra minute would make all the difference.
[GIFs: USMNT vs. Portugal goals]
Michael Bradley’s giveaway that led to Silvestre Varela’s last second goal off a picturesque Cristiano Ronaldo cross has already been endlessly cited as the fatal error2. But Geoff Cameron also failed to mark Varela’s run, allowing him a free header. I offer one other culprit: The idiot somewhere in the bar who started an “I Believe That We Just Won” chant before the final whistle blew. Not ten seconds later, the ball was in the back of Tim Howard’s net.
I’m ashamed to say I let my guard down and joined in.
Before the match, many would have taken a draw and run, but for it to happen in this way felt more like a loss. Even the novice crowd knew it. I heard multiple people lament, “That might as well have been a loss,” as Americans poured out onto the street.
Putting the gut punch into perspective so quickly is tough for me, but as I made the long, lonely 2 a.m. trek back to my Madrid apartment I took a quick inventory and determined that it could be the single most painful way I’ve ever watched one of my teams lose a game. I’m not old enough to have watched The Drive, Fumble, or Shot, and I was only five and unaware of the debacle that was Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. My worst memories of Cleveland or Ohio State losses – the 2007 BCS National Championship Game against Florida, the 2007 NBA Finals against San Antonio, the 2010 Eastern Conference Semifinals against Boston, and the 2013 Big Ten Championship against Michigan State – were all more death by a thousand pinpricks than the falling of a guillotine.
Of course, the USMNT still controls its own fate. Draw against Germany and they advance to the knockout stage; victory would mean advancing as the top team in Group G. Even a loss can see the Stars and Stripes through if Ghana and Portugal draw. A U.S. loss combined with a win for either Ghana or Portugal would leave it up to the various tiebreakers.
But still, this game was there for the taking. It was as close to over as a match can be without the referee actually blowing his whistle. Thirty more seconds, and the United States had navigated the Group of Death with a match to spare – a historic achievement for a still nascent soccer nation.
Instead, we are left to wait for Thursday. If the results don’t go right for the Yanks, we will be left waiting not for Next Year, but for 2018.
(AP Photo/Julio Cortez)