I spent Monday night in a bar so crowded and hot that I couldn’t move, much less order a beer, with a sweaty United States #8 jersey plastered to my skin. I won’t bore you with a ton of details — if you want those, my night went much like Sports On Earth’s Will Leitch’s, minus the bloody lip — because judging by videos of bars across the country, that’s how a significant amount of American fans watched it too.
The U.S. entered this game against Ghana, its first of the 2014 World Cup, knowing it probably needed to knock off the Black Stars to have any chance of advancing out of a Group of Death that includes Portugal and Germany, and its fans knew it too, which is why the most obvious feeling at that bar or any other in the hour before the match was pure anxiety. That anxiety evaporated, briefly, just 29 seconds into the match, when Clint Dempsey slotted home the fastest goal in American World Cup history and the fifth-fastest in the entire history of the tournament.
And then, after an hour spent fretting about the fact that Ghana was attacking, that Ghana was more impressive, that Jozy Altidore was hurt and Dempsey had a broken nose and Michael Bradley was anything but typical Michael Bradley, Ghana finally scored and everything seemed lost. But then, Graham Zusi walked to the corner, delivered a perfect cross that found the head of John Anthony Brooks and, thanks to a perfectly executed header, ended up in the back of the net…and the nation exploded.
It happened in California:
And in Kansas City:
And basically everywhere else people were gathered to watch the match:
There’s a common debate that pops up about American soccer every four years around the World Cup, and it focuses on why we don’t like soccer as much as everyone else, and when or if we’ll ever become a real soccer-loving nation. Some of the issues and questions can be interesting, but mostly soccer fans come armed with statistics about the game’s growth or romantic talk about how beautiful the game is (some of which is incredibly annoying), and non-soccer fans fight back with statistics about how much more popular football is and how no one ever scores or how it’s just plainly un-American. Then there are complaints about how Americans don’t like soccer properly. It can be one of the most tiring debates in American sports, and considering we have entire TV shows dedicated to debating topics like Joe Flacco’s eliteness and LeBron James’ status as a choker, that’s saying something. This debate isn’t unique to soccer, but it seems like both fans and non-fans alike spend more time trying to fight about it than any other sport, and everything — even Brooks’ goal and the reaction to it — becomes a flashpoint in that argument.
And then nights like last night come along and put on full display how pointless that debate really is. Because when you watch those celebrations, or when you sit in a hot, crowded bar full of American fans (and, in our case, Ghana fans too, which only made the atmosphere more incredible), and you feel it belch with anxiety in some moments and explode with euphoria in others, you realize how easy it is to just enjoy how fun all of it can be. You don’t have to be a soccer expert with a dedicated club team in the MLS or the EPL; you don’t have to understand the 4-4-2 or the history of Dos A Cero; you don’t have realize how incredible it is that it was John Anthony Brooks who put that ball in. You just had to be watching, because this was a great moment for the fans who have lived with this team for the last four years and for those who had never watched it before. That was true last night and it will be true going forward, whether we’re as good at loving this sport as everyone else or not.