Fear should guide U.S. vs. Portugal
The last thing you should tell a man walking on a high wire is to look down.
This is not just circus talk. It could also be the most important rule to think about when watching the American World Cup campaign continue today.
Think back to 2010 and the South African World Cup, which gave the United States the illusion of glory. Landon Donovan swooped in like a peregrine falcon to sweep the team into the last 16, providing U.S. Soccer with a "SportsCenter" moment and Psy-like YouTube numbers, courtesy of its "emotion across the nation" reaction video.
Mick Jagger and Bill Clinton marched into the U.S. locker room. Beers were cracked. The team, which had been insulated in its Pretoria base camp, was now aware that the nation's spotlight was upon them. In the round of 16 against Ghana, they instantly proceeded to fluff their lines.
The 2014 squad have eclipsed their predecessors' campaign within just 90 minutes of football. Two blood-pumping "SportsCenter" moments! Clint Dempsey's 30-second goal was a defibrillator to the nation's fragile Group G hopes. John Brooks' 86th-minute winner was the German-American cavalry coming in cleats.
Cue Joe Biden crashing the locker room. Cue soaring ratings. (Cue a special extra all-new episode of Inside: U.S. Soccer's March to Brazil, airing on ESPN at 4 p.m. ET.) Cue bandwagon and fervor. Cue a spike in the number of previously sentient Americans willing to shell out $90 to dress up in a child's pajama top in the name of glory.
As we descend into the Manaus rainforest to clash with Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal, there is a swelling sense of optimism and expectation around the U.S. national team.
They finally gutted out a win to fend off the Ghanians. The Portuguese were smacked down 4-0 in their first game. WWE's Pepe was red carded and will not play. Menacing defender Fábio Coentrão was knocked out with an injury. Ronaldo has limped around training this past week, permanently connected to an oversized ice pack in a succession of ever-shorter shorts.
In the pro-U.S. pregame discussion, there has been giddy talk of the Americans seeing "more of the ball" against Portugal than they did against Ghana. After watching the Germans stumble to a draw against the Africans, the notion of us beating Joachim Loew's side have been whispered, an idea burnished by Mexico and Costa Rica bringing the CONCACAF thunder.
Make ... it ... stop!
Before the World Cup kicked off, we did not know quite how the U.S. team would measure up to the world's best teams. After the thrilling opening game, we still don't. Yes, the U.S. dominated their opponents for the first 30 seconds, but after that, consider the number of chances conceded, times the defense switched off, the sloppy passes thrashed out of midfield and too few opportunities conjured in the final third.
As tenacious and gutsy a team they remain, the U.S. has outside backs who are vulnerable, a midfield that is turnover happy, and an attack shorn of its first-choice striker.
Make no mistake. Fit Ronaldo or non-fit Ronaldo, Portugal will bring players like Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso onto the field who have sufficient quality to hurt the United States. And CR7 will have watched Lionel Messi's heroic last-minute wonder strike vs. Iran like the rest of us, only he will be motivated to respond in kind.
So as the U.S. team takes the field in the heat and humidity of Manaus -- one of the few venues on earth that makes a Qatar World Cup seem sensible in comparison -- bellow with all your heart. Indeed, as one of the listeners to our show suggested, and as many new American World Cup fans have discovered this week, football, which used to be considered un-American, is now the sport in which we express our patriotism the most.
That is a wonderful thing. Cheer loudly. But do so with another crucial footballing emotion: fear. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It is the feeling Tim Howard admitted to me he experiences before a game.
I spoke to the U.S. keeper in Jacksonville, Fla., days before he departed for Brazil, and asked him to describe his prematch mindset.
"In these big moments, I feel anxiety and I feel nerves and I feel fear," he told me. "I like to feel it because it allows me to know that I'm about to enter into something. ... You strip down out of your warm-up clothes. You pull your jersey on ... and you feel the badge and, then you give your brothers a hug and let them know you're there for them. Then, that click clack of your metal cleats, walking on the concrete from the dark tunnel out into the bright lights knowing that your moment is arising. It's there for you to capture it."
Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN FC and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.