The United States men's national soccer team (USMNT) may have suffered a heartbreaking 2-2 draw to Portugal in last night's, Sunday, June 22, game two of the group stages of the World Cup, but the positive state of soccer in America was pleasantly affirmed.
Bars, parks, and courtyards across America were packed to watch the USMNT take on one of the best teams in the world in one of their most desperate moments in recent history. By all accounts, given the talent level and depth of Portugal and their situation, needing a win to salvage any hope of advancing out of the "group of death", the U.S. were in for the toughest match of their young World Cup campaign.
After an early gifted goal to Portugal, a bad clearance that fell fortunately at the feet of Nani, the United States' task of escaping with any points seemed even more daunting. But the U.S. never batted an eye at their bad fortune, and save for a few minutes in the final stages of the first half, the USMNT outplayed Portugal and deserved a draw; if not a win.
Now, the USMNT, who sauntered into Brazil with a slim chance of winning the World Cup, stand out amongst a group of relative no-name contenders vying for a chance to take it all. Sure, there's still some historical powerhouses alive, like Germany and Brazil, but perennial favorite Spain is out, and other group leaders, like Chile and Belgium, are just as untested and unseasoned as the Americans in the knockout stages of the world's biggest tournament.
In other words, this World Cup is different. There's no clear favorite(s) this time around, and America has a team, evidenced by last night, that is now capable of hanging with any team in the tournament.
And you can see this difference in our expectations as fans too. I mean, here we are, Monday morning, lamenting a draw with one of the best teams in the world. In previous World Cups, given the situation and the grouping, a draw with Portugal after falling behind 0-1 would have been cause for celebration in the streets.
But not anymore. Now, we believe that we will win.
And we, as American soccer fans, have all the reasons for hope now; even after a crushing result like we experienced last night.
For once in a World Cup, the USMNT's destiny is in their own hands. They have four points heading into the final game of the group stage, and barring blowouts, stand to move forward from the group and face either Belgium, Russia, Korea, or Algeria in the round of 16. All potential opponents that aren't anywhere on the level of a Germany, Portugal, or Brazil.
And as for the two most worrisome teams in the World Cup right now, Brazil, based on their talent and home field advantage, and Netherlands, based on their performance thus far, the United States would not have to worry about seeing them until the final four of the tournament.
In essence, there's more than just that "crazy American dreamer" hope this time for a deep run into the World Cup.
This is not to say that the USMNT, or its fans, should expect a top-eight-or-better finish. After all, technically, the team hasn't even advanced to the round of 16. But the fact that a quality finish in the world's biggest tournament, in a sport we as Americans are just now starting to accept and adopt, is a very realistic possibility, says something about how far soccer has progressed in America.
American soccer is no longer an underdog story in the World Cup. The USMNT is a good team filled with good talent, and our unsatisfied reaction to last night's draw proves that we, as fans, now realize that America belongs among soccer's elite.