If this is what it’s like to have vertigo, then I’d much prefer a trident to the head, thank you. Monitoring the American soccer initiative — game after game, year after year, quadrennial after quadrennial — is a constant exercise in messing with the mind, the heart and the equilibrium. How many times has the U.S. fan base, wanting to believe in the perpetual futbol mission and eager to help it grow globally, been whisked on a joy ride?
And how many times has the crazy train crashed?
All you needed from Michael Bradley was a simple clearing pass, or a casual move to maintain his dribble — the kind of instinctive keepaway maneuver he has executed hundreds of times in his career. The Americans were less than a half-minute from arguably their biggest victory ever on the international stage, a thrilling comeback victory over Portugal and the iconic Cristiano Ronaldo, and wherever you happened to be if you were American, you were telling, telephoning or texting someone, “WE DID IT!!!’’
Until Michael Bradley lost the ball at midfield to Eder, who quickly kicked the ball to Nani, who slung it into the expanse of daylight to the left of U.S. goaltender Tim Howard, who had been exceptional when necessary but had no chance as the final seconds ticked away. Ronaldo, knowing the game could end any second during five extra minutes of stoppage time, powered the perfect cross about 25 yards to a diving Varela, whose header beat Howard and turned another would-be American dream into a stunning, hollow 2-2 reminder that the U.S. never be an elite futbol nation until U.S. teams stop treat World Cup leads like they have cooties.
We could take an optimistic approach and say the Americans outplayed Portugal, that they’re and still positioned to reach the knockout round for the third time in the last four World Cups. We could say they returned from an early 1-0 hole, after Geoff Cameron’s unforgivably lame clearance attempt led to a Nani goal, with remarkable poise and flair — first via Jermaine Jones’ wicked curler from 28 yards, the longest open play World Cup goal for the U.S. in 50 years, then on a cross to Clint Dempsey, who allowed the ball to deflect off his belly for a 2-1 lead in the 81st minute. The Jones goal, in particular, was world-class by every definition, and for the first time in eons, it not only felt like America belonged in the World Cup but that it actually might be a factor in the World Cup.
Until Bradley, son of the ousted U.S. coach who was replaced in 2011 by Jurgen Klinsmann, made yet another mistake on a rough night and threw the brakes on a smooth journey into the next round. Now, rather than guaranteeing advancement out of Group G, the Americans must beat or tie Germany on Thursday to clinch a spot in the round of 16. If they lose, they start hoping and praying that tiebreakers and goal differentials don’t work against them in a Portugal or Ghana comparison. In the overall scope, sure, the Americans are in better shape than anyone would have imagined at this point. But the way they collapsed, sagging in the unbearable jungle heat of Manaus when victory was theirs, makes this difficult to accept.
“We’re disappointed,” Matt Besler said. “We could all taste it, I think everybody could. We could taste the second round.”
“It’s tough, but it’s just the way it goes,” Dempsey said. “We’re Americans. I think we like to do things the hard way.”
As for Klinsmann, his good work with this team continues to be lost in his unnecessary babbling. At first, he praised his players, raving about their effort and saying of the circumstances ahead, “We have one foot in the door. Now we’re going to walk the second foot in there and get it done.” But then he dipped into an oddball conspiracy theory, claiming that FIFA, the sport’s governing body, gave logistical advantages to favored teams such as Germany at the expense of teams like the U.S.
“We have one day less to recover. They played yesterday, we played today,” said Klinsmann, who played for Germany in three World Cups and managed the German World Cup team in 2006. “We played in the Amazon, they played in a location where they don’t have to travel much. Everything was done for the big favorites to go and move on. We’re going to do it the tough way.”
I realize a person has to take three showers after simply mentioning FIFA, one of the sleaziest organizations on Planet Earth. But Klinsmann conveniently forgets that schedules were established before teams had even started qualifying for the World Cup. And if the Americans had chosen a more central location for their training base than Sao Paulo, maybe they wouldn’t have the most rigorous travel itinerary of all the Cup teams.
No, this was about self-sabotaging one of the best games America has played in a World Cup. The U.S. dominated almost 90 minutes, but screwed up early and screwed up late. Said Bradley, per ESPN: “Obviously, the end of the game, we’re trying to move ourselves out and make the game as difficult for them (as possible).
The ball popped up and I was able to make a few quick steps and get there. It was tight and unfortunately I wasn’t able to make a good enough play to keep it for us or get a foul. At that point, the ball turns over and it’s up to us to deal with the situation.
“Certainly, the way it ends, you rack your mind thinking, `Can you do this better, can you do that better?’ But the reality is still that over the course of a game there’s a million of these kind of plays and you can’t let these plays — they go on in the course of a game and there’s nothing else to it. I put my heart and soul into every game, every time I step on the field. I’m proud of that and proud every time I play, and there are certainly no regrets in my book.’’
Less than two weeks after reiterating his belief that a World Cup triumph for Team USA isn’t “realistic,’’ Klinsmann now sounds like a red, white and a blue cheerleader — right down to the long-sleeve jersey he wore in the jungle setting. “Obviously, when they get it in in the last second, it is unfortunate, but I think it was an amazing game, an amazing performance by all our guys,” he said. “We just go in it the tougher way, so we got to go and beat Germany, get a result against Germany, that’s what we got to do.”
Soccer being a conspiratorial paradise, there already is talk that Germany coach Joachim Loew, who was Klinsmann’s assistant and protege in 2006, has hatched a deal with his former boss to purposely tie Thursday’s game so both teams will advance. Klinsmann dismissed the theory, reminding us that FIFA changed the format after West Germany and Austria were found in 1982 to be in cahoots to assure advancement. “There’s no such (phone) call,” Klinsmann said. “There’s no time right now to have friendship calls. It’s about business now.”
The business is not breaking more U.S. hearts. Is America ready to break through at a World Cup? Is this just another tease? Is this what happens when your senses are doing somersaults and you have no balance? An Associated Press reporter asked Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation president, how he’s doing about now.
“Somebody sent me a text: It feels awesome and awful at the same time,” he said.
To make legitimate progress at a World Cup, awful can’t intermingle with awesome.