It took me five days after the USMNT lost to Belgium to be able to read any of the many obituaries, encomia and tributes that followed in that match’s wake. It took me five days before I could begin to think on the accomplishments of the US team and reflect on what had happened. It took me five days to get over it, to move on from it. As I watched the games on Friday and Saturday, as the quarterfinals became the semifinals, I did so not really believing the next game wouldn’t feature Dempsey, Howard, Bradley and Jones. Their run was certainly, and decisively, over, and yet I was not ready for it to end.
In the first hour of October 17th, 2003, I found myself kneeling on a barroom floor, my legs covered in peanut shells and my hands on my head. The bar was emptying but I had not yet mustered the strength to join them. I didn’t cry. I didn’t yell. I didn’t move at all or say anything at all. I stayed on the ground, staring into the distance, at the projection screen that hung from the ceiling, silently willing its images to become different, for time to rewind, for history to change.
Tim Wakefield, good and faithful servant that he was, had gone out to pitch to Aaron Boone in the bottom of the 11th inning in Game 7 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium. That inning lasted one pitch: a pitch that wobbled out of Wakefield’s hand only for Aaron Boone’s bat to meet it, and redirect it into left field, into the night, into the stands. Wakefield walked off silently and sadly, but not despondently. I sunk into the peanut shells and grabbed at hair.
At a gas station, I got out of the car and just kind of paced around. I didn’t say much, was still in a mostly catatonic state. I kept seeing the ball leave the bat and Wakefield’s forced march from the field. It was not that they had lost, not that they had disappointed me, not that they had given up or choked or failed. It was that it was over, and I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted another night to watch them and take joy in them and thank them for everything they’d given me. But it was over.
I didn’t think the USMNT could do that to me. I didn’t think that they could make me care that much, not about them winning, but about them. I didn’t think that those guys could make me feel bad not because they lost, but because they lost. To think on Michael Bradley finally figuring out his new position and playing his best game of the tournament, and to imagine that it was his last game. To see Clint Dempsey’s battered face and know that it would heal long after he got on the plane. To watch Jermaine Jones walk off the field draped in flags, having become a star and hero over four games, and realize that they were the culmination and not a prelude. To look at Tim Howard, after the most complete performance any of us are likely to see a goalkeeper give, to see the tears and know that those were all he had left to give us. I only wanted to see them play again, not for me, not because they should have won or deserved to win, but because they had made me care so much about them and I didn’t want it to end for them, not yet.
And yet it has ended. Though they’ll play again for the US over the next couple years, this is likely the last we’ll see of DeMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Jermaine Jones, Nick Rimando and Chris Wondolowski in the World Cup.* Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi might get passed by for spots as the team continues to bring on the next generation. That’s ten of the 23 players on this team, including three of its best performers in this tournament in Dempsey, Howard and Jones. When we think back on this team, those are the names, faces and moments we’re likely to remember.
Yet we may also remember this as the international coming out for DeAndre Yedlin (snapped up by Roma before the US even got on the plane home) and Julian Green, whose goal against Belgium in the game’s dying embers caused me to fall to shout louder than I can remember for any reason. Bradley will return, hopefully as a deeper-lying midfielder than trying to play as a number ten. Jozy Altidore will be entering his prime as the US goes to Russia. John Brooks, Matt Besler, and Fabian Johnson (probably on his favored left side with Beasley gone) will all return. And there is more youth and hope in the pipeline. Even when it’s over, there’s still hope for another time and another chance.
4:00 – We’re down to the final four, which this year looks like a Final Four of Kentucky, Duke, Kansas and North Carolina. This is the 20th World Cup and these four teams have been semi-finalists 29 times, finalists 21 times and have won ten World Cups between them. Two of these four teams have played one another in the final five times. The Netherlands have never won but have appeared in three finals. Argentina have won twice and appeared in two more finals. But more on them tomorrow.
Brazil and Germany have appeared in a combined fourteen times and won the trophy eight times (five and three, respectively), and stand as the two greatest powers in the tournament’s history. Italy may have won more often than Germany, but the Germans have been more consistent. For Brazil, this is their chance to keep a second Jules Rimet trophy. This is the fourth consecutive World Cup that the Germans have reached at least the semis, a run that began in 2002 when they faced off against a Ronaldo-led Brazil in the final.
Somehow, Miroslav Klose was on that team, and the tournament’s second leading goal scorer, with five goals, a feat he would repeat in 2006 before being comparatively awful and netting only four in 2010. Klose only one goal in 2014, giving him fifteen total for his career, tied with Ronaldo for the most in World Cup history. Netting one against Brazil this afternoon would put him atop the board and could push his team past the only other country with a similar track record of sustained excellence. More likely, the goals will come from Thomas Mueller, who has scored nine over his two World Cups, or Mezut Oezil, who is a far better player than he has demonstrated over the last two weeks. The German defense remains characteristically stout, if plodding, with Phillip Lahm and the return of Bastian Schweinsteiger shoring up any of their weaknesses. They are a calculating and exacting team, that look to play as they want and impose that style on the other team, rather than react to what their opponents are doing. That said, they are perfectly capable of discovering a weakness in the other team and then exploit it ruthlessly.
Of course, Brazil remain the favorite to keep the trophy in Rio. This despite never looking entirely confident or competent for a full 90 minutes. Their road this afternoon became much more difficult thanks in large part to Carlos Velasco Carballo. Carballo does not play for Brazil. Neither does he play for Colombia, their previous opponent. Rather, he was the referee in that match, which swung well out of control under his watch, as fouls became nastier and tackles heavier the more Carballo let them go. In the end, Carballo’s inability to keep peace and calm stormy tempers led to Brazil’s best player being taken down with a knee to the back, resulting in a fractured vertebra** for Neymar, the astounding striker and focal point of the Brazilian attack. Thiago Silva, their captain and rock at the back, will miss the game as well, having received his second yellow of the tournament.***
The road is thus harder for the hosts, but by no means impassible. They still have a star-studded team full of goal-scoring threats (Hulk, Oscar, Fred, Willian, Jo), midfielders adept at turning over possession and initiating the offense (Fernandinho, Paulinho, Ramires) and the Exploding Ham Cart himself, David Luiz, who got his porkluminum all over Colombia with a free kick in the quarters. The problem being that Germany can answer with threats of their own (Mueller, Oezil, Goetze, Shurrle, Kroos) and mids of their own (Khedira, Lahm, Schweinsteiger). The Germans may have the better defense and goalkeeping, but Brazil will have a decided advantage playing in their home country.
For one of these teams, it will be over too soon, in just a few hours. The other will play again in the Final and hope to add to their already dominant resume. I think it will take more than 90 minutes, but not PKs, and Brazil will edge out Germany for a chance to get their sixth championship and second keepsake trophy.
* To be fair, I could very easily see Howard coming back as the mostly ceremonial third keeper in 2018 after ceding his role to his current backup (and great keeper in his own right for J Reed’s Aston Villa) Brad Guzan. Dempsey could also head over to Russia as a late-game substitute, but the honest hope would be that the US could produce someone capable of more than 30 minutes of action to bring in his place.
** Note: he fractured a vertebra (ver-teh-bruh), not several vertebrae (ver-teh-bray), as ESPN insisted on pronouncing it. It’s still a terrifying thought, and indeed a horrifying reality for Neymar, but it is at least slightly better. /pedant
*** It’s called “accumulation” and intends to stop players from getting one yellow every match of a tournament (which would be allowable under the rules of the game, but would imply a destructive and dangerous player not receiving any actual sanction for improper play), by suspending players who receive two yellow cards over their team’s first five (or fewer) matches for the team’s next match.