I'd settled the bar tab. Hadn't you? After the Romelu Lukaku goal just 14 minutes into extra time, Belgium led 2-0, and it was time to go home.
This has been a giddy little fortnight. It was just 15 days ago that John Brooks scored that goal, and the United States had a soccer moment that captivated the nation in a way that, now that it's over, we can sorta say really was more exciting than Landon Donovan's winning goal over Algeria. The stakes were lower -- it was merely getting three points rather than one, as opposed to pulling a Round of 16 spot out of one's arse at the last possible second -- but it still felt different, didn't it? Brooks -- who wouldn't play again the rest of the tournament -- scored a goal that didn't feel like escaping by the skin of one's keester; it felt like the start of something new, and different, and thrilling. Brooks' goal was the culmination of a wild comeback. And there isn't anything we American sports fans love more than a wild comeback.
That goal carried us quite a bit. The Jermaine Jones goal against Portugal was more impressive, and that Clint Dempsey goal more badass, but nothing had that lighting-bolt-from-the-heavens feel more than Brooks' goal. It made us feel special: It made us feel chosen. The U.S. suffered a wretched last-second equalizer against Portugal and then were thoroughly dominated by Germany (not to mention held scoreless), but still, as the chant goes, we believed. This is our thing. It's why the chant is so great. Even when it was stupid to, we believed.
We believed throughout Tuesday's game, even though Belgium was clearly the better team, even though they attacked the whole game and we just hung on, thanks to goalkeeper Tim Howard, whom we knew was great but didn't know was quite this great. Belgium was better. So what? So was Portugal. So was Ghana. So was earth. This is what the Brooks goal -- "it's John Brooks! It's John Brooks!" belted Ian Darke as Brooks looked more shocked than anyone -- did to us. This was so fantastic -- this feeling so new and revolutionary -- that it couldn't be for nothing. Of all our strengths as Americans, the fact that we never, ever imagine this could all be for nothing is one of our most powerful ones. Take everything away, strip us of all that we value, and we'll still always believe something better is coming: That a reward for this suffering is just around the corner. It is our curse. And it is our strength.
So we screamed and chanted and screamed and believed the whole damned 90-plus minutes of regulation, and we believed after that Prince Harry-lookin' fella scored at the 92nd minute, and we believed and we believed and we believed that we would win. Even down 1-0, it felt like this was leading somewhere. It just felt like a small speed bump in the plot to be retold, and refuted, later.
And then Lukaku scored. As many have mentioned, the fundamental difference between these two teams was that our big game-changer off the bench was Chris Wondolowski -- oh, Chris Wondolowski, oh so close to becoming T.J. Oshie, but cubed! -- and theirs was Romelu Lukaku, one of the best strikers on the planet. When he scored in the 104th minute, we all exhaled and accepted our fate. We called for the checks. We hugged our friends goodbye. We fortified ourselves with the 2015 Gold Cup. We accepted it all as a learning experience, a pivot point in the grand American soccer experiment. Even Jurgen Klinsmann felt this way: Why else would he put in teenager Julian Green, the future of U.S. Soccer, a promise of a better day? We gave it a shot. We did our best. We're just not there yet. It's been a blast these two weeks. Check please.
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AND THEN. And then Green, of all freaking people, from a perfect Michael Bradley pass, pounded in a earthshaker of a goal. Julian Green! The future! Now! And suddenly: It all flushed back to us. There was a reason for this. The U.S. plunged forward, attacking like madmen, as Belgium suddenly looked scared … nervous. This is what other countries fear about playing the United States. Not that we're better players … but that we, dumbly, think we are. Green's goal put a charge into everyone, the team, the fans, the whole damned country. It reminded us what was so fun about all this in the first place. Every minute afterward was manic. We needed to do it for Tim Howard, who put together one of the best performances in American club history. We needed to do it for Clint Dempsey, who might be doing this for the last time. We needed to do it to make this all matter: We needed to do it because this can't be for nothing.
It fell just short. (Damn, didn't it feel like we should have an extra minute or so? No?) But it wasn't for nothing.
Ultimately, this will be good for us. Those frantic extra time minutes were the charge we had needed: It reminded us what this march was all about. The U.S. didn't go out sadly to a superior team; it went out scratching and clawing to a superior team. The trick is to hang on to that. The trick is to combine that "this can't be for nothing" with inherent skill, to bring the talent along with the will. This is what Jurgen Klinsmann has been assigned. That the best sign of hope moving forward -- Julian Green -- was the person who inspired that last-ditch clawing makes it that much more thrilling. This can work. This wasn't for nothing.
It's a long time until the next World Cup. But you can be sure of this: The U.S. won't be the underdogs that they were this time, then. This was not a wave breaking, and rolling back. This is a high and beautiful crest to ride. This is not done.
Soccer isn't supposed to be as inherently dramatic and American as it has been for U.S. Soccer at this World Cup, nor was it at the last one. But it's a progression. It's a movement. We are slowly making this game ours, bending it into a shape that we recognize, a shape we can use. Tim Howard and Julian Green and Jurgen Klinsmann allowed us one last glimpse of the thrill. What happens next is going to be wonderful. We're all just getting warmed up. This ride is just beginning.
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