Could the U.S. vs. Portugal game live up to the hype? In some ways this game was already won before it started. It was won in terms of the excitement it had generated around the country and the world, the buzz on social media and the prominent place that the game that we love acquired over the past two weeks in our culture.
In a fragmented and segmented world, there are very few shared experiences, precious few “watercooler moments.” This has become one and people around the country eagerly anticipated the match Sunday. That in itself is a victory for those of us who grew up watching it on PBS recorded programs from Europe (“Soccer made in Germany”), running up our cable bills to get obscure channels and reading foreign newspapers a week after they were written, coaching, playing and building the game during those dark times before we regularly qualified for World Cups.
Now we had this veritable feast of pregame stories, video tributes and social media posts to enjoy. But underneath it all was the little underlying question at the back of the mind — would the game live up to the hype?
AMERICAN BOYS DELIVER
Well, of course it did — Jermaine Jones saw to that! What a goal! He curled it in to the side netting from outside the box to rescue his team from an early deficit that had the U.S. reeling. At about the eighth minute, the word at my house was, “This is sad!” The U.S. were under severe pressure, had allowed a soft goal from a dreadful mistake, and were facing an exit from the tournament if they lost this game and the next.
All of a sudden the U.S. were in a good position, even at 1-1 from Jones’ goal, then up 2-1 from an almost offside goal by, who else, Clint Dempsey. Then at the death, in the last seconds, Cristiano Ronaldo came up with a moment that was worthy of his status as a world-class player and served a perfect ball to create the equalizer. At the end, you have to be proud of our team!
So where does that leave us? Well, a draw vs. Germany sees both teams advance, with Germany as group winners. That must be the most likely result. A win by Germany would still see the U.S. advance, if the loss is not by more than one or two goals and Ghana doesn’t win by more than we lose by. A win by Portugal should see us through, unless it’s a Portugal win by a big margin and we lose by a few. So, win or tie and we are through, lose by less than a few and that should do, too!
KNOCKOUT STAGE APPROACHES
Now that we have seen everyone play twice, the knockout stage come into clearer focus. This week we get the last round of group games, played simultaneously to ensure that no team has the advantage of knowing what result they need to advance. Some of these games are packed with drama and some teams, England and Spain amazingly, are just playing out the schedule before heading home.
TEAMS FALL INTO TIERS
Teams are starting to stratify into tiers of achievement. First are the shockingly early exits — Spain and England. There was a great Twitter post from a fake Prince Charles account offering the England team bus for sale, “Only used twice!”
Next are the high flying teams. Are these now the favorites or did they peak too early? It has been a joy to watch, the Netherlands, Chile, Colombia, France and Germany play thus far. All have scored goals in abundance, defended high up the field and counter attacked with venom. It wouldn’t be a surprise if any of these teams went all the way to the semifinals or beyond.
The next group are the slow burners. These are teams that haven’t yet hit the heights but have the experience and savvy to know that the really big games are a week or two away. Brazil, Italy and Argentina are the most notable of these teams. None of them has really impressed yet, doing just enough to stay alive but not gelling as a unit. Lionel Messi’s goals have been precise and conjured out of seemingly dead ends and no space. His late goal against Iran only came after his historical nemesis, Diego Maradona, had left the building, prompting #maradonmufa to trend worldwide! Is there a jinx of Maradona? How will they keep him out of the stadiums?
Finally, the group that the USA finds itself in, the upstarts, needs to be examined. While many players on the biggest teams are secure in their status as world superstars, the players on these teams are striving to make a name for themselves and their country. Many of them know that a worldwide audience can change their lives in one moment at a World Cup. These teams also know that the group has to perform better than the sum of its parts. There have been inspirational performances so far from Costa Rica, defeating Italy in their second game, and Mexico, drawing Brazil, and, of course, the United States.
GAMES NOT TO BE MISSED
There are some great games this week as teams scramble to get into the knockout stages. Seven teams are in, or all but in, seven more are out or just about out. That leaves 18 teams vying for the remaining nine spots. Here are games to make time for this week:
10 a.m. today: Italy vs. Uruguay. Only one of these former champions will join Costa Rica in advancing. That is pretty amazing considering Italy won it in 2006 and Uruguay were semifinalists in 2010.
10 a.m. Wednesday: Nigeria vs. Argentina. Will Lionel Messi and Co. prevent the only African team from advancing to the knockout rounds?
10 a.m. Thursday: USA vs Germany. Coach Jurgen gets a chance to test this team, with its five young German Americans, against the team he led to World Cup success as a player in 1990 and to the semifinal in 2006 as their coach. Watch the hype build even further for this one! If we draw, we both go through!
David Cope teaches social studies and coaches the boys and girls soccer teams at Battle Mountain High School in Edwards.