Seldom does a defeat in international sport command the “respect” of a victorious opponent.
“Two words.. TIM HOWARD#Respect#BelUSA,” Belgian captain Vincent Kompany tweeted less than an hour after his national team secured a Round of 16 World Cup win against the United States, 2-1, in extra time Tuesday.
Kompany wasn’t just being a gracious winner, though.
Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, notched a World Cup record 16 saves in the contest against Belgium.
FIFA only started officially recording saves statistically in 1966, but I think we can still revel in the fact that an American is on top of the record books in at least one category in soccer.
An American record in international soccer, a sport that doesn’t even get a place on the podium of our national sports.
Far more will come from the tournament run the U.S. just engineered than simply one memory of a titanic performance between the posts.
A defeat that marked the second-straight Cup where Team USA has been knocked out of contention after getting to the elimination stage — an achievement by itself — may seem indicative to many that soccer just isn’t our thing.
We can’t win the big one, right? Just like poor old Marty Schottenheimer when the NFL playoffs used to roll around for him. To those underwhelmed by and uninvolved in supporting the sport of soccer stateside, the loss to Belgium probably triggered eyerolls and shrugs of indifference.
“The U.S. got just as far as it did in 2010 and fell flat on its face again? Not surprised,” says John Q. Indifferent.
What the average soccer detractor doesn’t realize is the American squad showed in defeat that, while Europe’s elite teams may still be able to get the best of them, they’re just barely getting away with it in 2014.
Even judging purely from this four-game World Cup résumé, the U.S. has shown it can hang with some of the greatest teams in the world for 90 minutes. Maybe even for 120 minutes, if need be, as was the case Tuesday at the Arena Fonte Nova.
By managing to emerge from what was colloquially billed the “Group of Death” when FIFA announced the 32-team draw, Team USA defied both expectation and superstition.
Experts widely predicted the U.S. to flounder against titans of the beautiful game and finish fourth out of four.
Instead of wilting at the prospect of taking on nemesis Ghana, fourth-ranked Portugal and second-ranked Germany, the U.S. stepped up to the challenge and advanced as group G’s runner-up.
They’d beaten a Ghana team that outplayed them for 85 minutes by a tally of 2-1. The win was worth far more to U.S. Soccer than just the three points it afforded them in the standings, though.
Vanquishing the Black Stars — the team to send the U.S. home in 2006 and 2010 — eradicated talk of a curse of ineptitude, of an inability to win high-stakes matches.
Fittingly, the unlikeliest of heroes won the day.
Defender John Brooks, just 21 years old, unexpectedly saw playing time as a substitute at halftime because of an injury to defender Matt Besler. Brooks was making his fifth Team USA appearance when he took the field.
For context, the Ghana game was captain Clint Dempsey’s 105th cap for the red, white and blue.
Spotlight jitters? Please. Brooks scored the game-winner — his first international goal — in the 86th minute and put away the talented African opposition.
The U.S. tied a stacked Portugal side that’s led by one of the world’s premier athletes in forward Cristiano Ronaldo, whom the defense stifled for most of the game.
Let me say that again.
When supposedly second-rate USA can restrict one of the best footballers on the planet to seven shots, 20 passes and one assist on the biggest of stages of international athletic competition, well, that doesn’t sound very second rate to me.
In fact, the U.S. had a win nearly in hand. Portuguese midfielder Silvestre Varela’s goal off an admittedly impeccable cross by Ronaldo in the 95th minute for the tying score broke American hearts. Fans were devastated because advancement out of the group stage of the cup had been guaranteed with a win that proved suddenly elusive with 30 seconds left to play.
But that’s the point. People cared. Finally, people cared and had a vested interest in how this soccer team, their soccer team, was faring.
I took in the Portugal game at Fado Irish Pub in Columbus’ Easton Town Center, and what had been a joyous scene in the waning moments became a maudlin and crestfallen one when the Varela goal went in.
The joy got sapped out of the room and I saw hands clutch heads and jaws drop.
Disbelieving sighs and bewildered profanities showed me that people had taken ownership of this U.S. team with their full being.
But I can tell you that people being absolutely crushed by a draw against one of the world’s football powers is an impressive and telling statement about how far this sport has come.
Better yet, that we legitimately expect to win against one of the world’s football powers — and get vocally and visibly upset when we don’t — is proof that American soccer is on the upswing.
As former national team star and ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas said moments after the Belgium game, “This loss, it’s gonna hurt. But tomorrow morning we’ll wake up, and I think that this team has provided a glimpse of the fact that there is a soccer culture in the United States. And it’s vibrant and it’s passionate, and ultimately, it will lead us to win a World Cup.”
It’s a bold statement to end on. But millions of fans going nuts in parks, plazas and stadiums across the country while watching the U.S. on jumbotrons and projection screens are inclined to agree with Lalas.
“I believe that we will win,” they chanted vibrantly, passionately. Even when it didn’t come true against Belgium, they still believed.
Ultimately, the point to take away from this U.S. World Cup run and the years of progress that led up to it is linked to what Vincent Kompany earnestly told his Twitter followers Tuesday night.
American soccer is alive and well, and it deserves your respect.
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