America's team are very much alive
RIO DE JANEIRO -- This is some hangover. We wake up battered and bruised, as if we slept fitfully beside our requisite U.S. Soccer pajama tops, crushed in a ball on the bedroom floor, covered in the stains, sweat and terror of the night before. America. This may be the closest you will come to feeling like we English do on a daily basis.
It could get worse. If the U.S. do not physically -- and mentally -- rebound to claim at least a tie against Euro-power Germany on Thursday, the pain will become a searing perma-bruise on our national footballing psyche.
If at halftime last night, as Jurgen Klinsmann's team stumbled into the Amazonian locker room a goal down against Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, and you had been offered a draw, wouldn't you have taken it in a heartbeat?
If I told you back on the day of the World Cup draw (as I did) that the United States would have four points and remain undefeated after two rounds of Group G play, you would have rolled your eyes and looked at me with a concerned pity.
And if you knew this young, inexperienced U.S. team could control their own fate entering the final group game, you would have dropped to your knees to thank the soccer gods and Mike Tirico.
In football, the emotional and the rational run on parallel lines. As the smoke clears from a tingling night in the jungle of Manaus, unpredictable enough to make the opening scene of "Apocalypse Now" appear sane, America's team are very much alive. But they must travel to the unforgiving heat of Recife to face a talent-rich German side, knowing they missed a glaring opportunity to provide the nation with a memory which could have existed in the Great American Sports Pantheon alongside the Miracle on Ice, Doug Flutie's Hail Mary and Montana to Clark.
Such is the walk through the valley of the shadow of the Group of Death. This was a game sufficiently dramatic to help Americans cope with their "Game of Thrones" withdrawal. One spectacular minute, Jermaine Jones, long derided by the U.S. media, showed why Klinsmann has long believed in him. Then Clint Dempsey became the most swaggering American since Steve McQueen's Hilts, the "Cooler King" in "The Great Escape." The MLS contingent -- Kyle Beckerman, Matt Besler and Deandre Yedlin in a late cameo -- shone, German-American Fabian Johnson reveled in Portugal's disjointed tactics to dominate the flanks, and Klinsmann demonstrated the magical touch in the choices he has made with this young, fearless, athletic U.S. squad.
Two minutes of clown defending obliterated all that. (For the last one of which, Michael Bradley has become a Twitter pinata. Please leave him alone. He is the best American player of his generation. Believe in his ability because you will need him.)
Yet I feel more pride than pain this morning. There was much talk about last week's 2-1 win against Ghana being "American" thanks to the Hollywood ending of John Brooks' 86th minute winner. Yet, to me, that was nostalgic "American soccer" -- a collective, never-give-up, huff 'n' puff endeavor. As devastating as the outcome of this 2-2 performance felt, I hope it redefines what it means to be "American" in relation to soccer: Klinsmann's team took on Portugal, ranked fourth in the world, and outplayed them not just with guts, pluck and tenacity but with bold, optimistic, inventive, relentless and confident football. And I love that.