In the beginning, they were tied together by their shared status as controversial roster choices, despite having little in common other than their American citizenship and a penchant for scoring goals. In the end, their clearly divergent paths are symbolic of American soccer's present shifting quickly into American soccer's future.
One is an MLS lifer, a self-made player whose story is simultaneously everything that is wrong and right about the American game.
The other is a highly prized recruit of supreme pedigree, achingly young age and scant professional experience who has come to embody the possibilities before the U.S. national team.
On Tuesday afternoon in Salvador, Brazil, one missed the chance of a lifetime. The other had one, too, but he made his count.
Chris Wondolowski wasn't supposed to be there. Not just on the field playing against Belgium in the knockout stages of the World Cup with U.S. advancement on the line, but on the national team at all. The San Jose Earthquakes striker, a "late-bloomer" in that special way only Americans seem to be, charged his way into the team on the back of an MLS goal-scoring record the likes of which the league had never seen. Over four seasons from 2010 to 2013, Wondolowski scored 72 times. Using an innate sense of where to be and when to be there combined with his legendary movement off the ball, Wondolowski transformed himself from a player no one wanted into an MLS star and World Cup-level international.
Faced with a dearth of in-form strikers and clearly valuing the work Wondolowski put into his craft, Jurgen Klinsmann tapped the 31-year-old for the plane to Brazil. It was a feel-good story with an expiration date, Wondolowski's one chance to make his mark on the biggest soccer tournament in the world after spending nine years striving to get there.
Wondolowski's remarkable story is why his stoppage-time miss against Belgium, the best of the scant chances the United States created on the night, was so heartbreaking. He was there, as he'd been so often in MLS, in the perfect place to lace home a shocking winner when the ball bounded off the head of Jermaine Jones just in front of Thibaut Courtois' net. Over the four-plus year stretch that earned Wondolowski his place in the team and on that field in Salvador, he had put away that chance countless times. If it had gone in, it would have been a quintessential Wondolowski goal. Not flashy, but effective.
But it didn't go in. Wondolowski missed. A triumphant moment, one that would have made him an American soccer legend and a Belgian soccer villain from now until time immemorial, turned sour. Wondolowski's normally trusty goal-seeking touch deserted him just when he needed it most.
There won't be another World Cup for Wondolowski. Thirty-five-year-old strikers don't often make World Cup teams, not unless they're Italian or Miroslav Klose. There's a new generation of American talent coming up behind Wondolowski and his peers, ready to take over and push the American program in a new, and potentially transformative, direction.
Wondolowski's miss was about the USA, in this moment. A nation that struggled mightily to overcome its deficit of talent in every match is still dependent on Chris Wondolowski or players like him.
Belgium 2-1 U.S.: Postgame video and reaction
- Roger Bennett: The future is bright
- Jason Davis: A tale of two strikers
- Chris Jones: Band of brothers go down fighting
- Doug McIntyre: Young players shine | 3 Points
- Jeff Carlisle: Howard's historic night | Grades
- Gabriele Marcotti: Belgium, Wilmots' anxious win
- Men In Blazers: United States postmortem
- Landon Donovan: We need to keep developing
- Klinsmann Cam: Emotional ups and downs vs. Belgium
- Pablo S. Torre: Hey, America, where are you going?
The future got its chance in Salvador, too. It did not miss.
The future is Julian Green.
The 19-year-old Bayern Munich reserve player wasn't supposed to be there. Not just on the field playing against Belgium in the knockout rounds of the World Cup with U.S. advancement on the line, but on the national team at all. Too young, too inexperienced, too far behind others in the USMNT setup who could still make a contribution if called upon -- and that's without mentioning the little matter of choosing the country of his father over the country of his upbringing.
The risk in heaping so much hope on the shoulders of a player with a whisper of top-level professional experience is that he might not meet expectations. The risk in valuing talent over track record is that there's plenty of room for second-guessing.
Getting Green to sign on for the United States was a coup. Whether or not Klinsmann promised him a spot on the World Cup roster as enticement is now irrelevant, with the Americans on their way back from Brazil. In the end, he was vindicated.
What looked like a substitution of resignation by Klinsmann turned out to be his most inspired decision of the evening -- even if it could have come sooner. Green entered the game in stoppage time, the last change in a game that looked lost. Give the kid a taste of the World Cup. He'll probably be back there in four years' time.
Then, suddenly, there was Green, darting into the box on a run no other American midfielder had attempted or conceived of all night, connecting with a morsel of a chip from Michael Bradley, and flicking the ball past Courtois to bring the United States within one goal. Green's run, ingenuity, touch -- it was everything promised, in a single moment. All of that in a 19-year-old, in a player who didn't need nine years to hone and tweak his craft for years to be ready to take his chance.
Despite the crushing loss and the end of another tournament without the clear "step forward" so many in the U.S. soccer community crave, Green provided the enraptured American crowds -- bigger than they've ever been by some margin -- with reason to dream that the next World Cup will be different. His goal was only acrid consolation when it came to the scoreboard, but it was sweet nectar of hope when it came to the future.
Barring catastrophe, Green will get another chance at the World Cup. Bursting with talent, his time with the USMNT is just beginning. Perhaps his goal against Belgium was a sign of things to come.
Green's goal was about the USA, from now until 2018 and beyond. A nation that struggled mightily to overcome its deficit of talent in every match is marching with intent toward a future when that deficit is a thing of the past.