Thirty seconds. That’s how long it took the United States Men’s National Team to score its first goal of the 2014 World Cup, after Jermaine Jones released Clint Dempsey into the box and Dempsey calmly slid a shot off the far post and into the net to give the Americans a one goal lead over Ghana.
Thirty seconds. That’s roughly how much time was remaining when Cristiano Ronaldo fired a cross into the box and found the head of Silvestre Varela, who put the ball in the back of the net to give Portugal a stunning equalizing goal and wreck the Americans’ dreams of advancing through the group stage after only two matches.
Thirty seconds. That’s about how much time was left in stoppage time of the USMNT’s round of 16 match with Belgium when the ball fell to the right foot of Chris Wondolowski, the striker brought to Brazil solely to poach goals, just a few yards from the net. It was the best chance the U.S. had all night, an opportunity to steal the match and roll into the quarterfinals, rewarding a stand-on-your-head performance from keeper Tim Howard. But Wondo stuffed it wide and high of the frame.
Thirty minutes. That’s how much longer the Americans’ World Cup lasted, even after Julian Green came on and snapped a volleyed goal into the net to breathe life into the nation’s hopes, even after multiple golden chances in front of net that could have — had to have, even — brought the U.S. level with Belgium with just minutes remaining.
That is the World Cup, a series of wild mood swings and questions about what could have been had one thing gone differently. What if Jozy hadn’t pulled his hamstring, if the Americans had a friendlier travel schedule, if they had a little more talent, a little more gusto on the attack, or something, all questions that will never be answered because this is the pain of sports and the special evil of soccer, where one chance has the potential to change the world whether you take it like the U.S. did against Ghana or let it pass like it did against Belgium. It is a game in which you can watch a team hang by a thread for 90 then 120 minutes and know they weren’t better but still feel crushed to lose because sometimes in this sport the lesser team finds a solitary moment of magic and steals everything anyway.
That is the feeling today, because the Americans could have won even if they didn’t have much business doing so. And at the same time, that disappointment is mixed with the happiness that existed before it and hope that exists going forward. There is a silver lining to this cloud of pain, because this United States Men’s National Team just took everyone on an amazing ride, a rollercoaster of emotions that in the end makes this thing exactly what it is.
There was the United States putting together one of the best years in American soccer history and breezing through qualifying, only to be rewarded with the Group of Death and the tournament’s toughest travel schedule. There was Dempsey’s opening minute strike, followed as it was by Jozy Altidore’s tournament-ending injury, which only led us to John Anthony Brooks’ improbable goal and amazing “what did I just do?” celebration. There was the early goal and the despair that came with it against Portugal, then Jermaine Jones’ wonder strike to even the score and Dempsey’s go-ahead. And then there was Portugal equalizing and dashing it all away like it never happened.
There were the breakout performances from Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and DeAndre Yedlin — this kid, remember, was playing college soccer just 19 months ago — and Julian Green, all 19 years of him, walking onto the field with America’s hopes on the ropes and lacing home a goal on the first touch of his World Cup career. This is the type of play that makes American fans think about what could be four years from now when all of these kids are experienced and hopefully improved, but all of that is balanced with the sadness of knowing that this was the swan song for Howard and Dempsey, two of the best and most important players to ever don an American jersey, and Jones and Damarcus Beasley and others too.
There were the celebrations of people stuffed into packed bars and restaurants and avenues and stadiums, chanting “I Believe” and soaking each other in beer and punching each other (accidentally) in the face when Dempsey, then Brooks, then Jones, then Dempsey scored. There was the biggest television audience to ever watch a soccer match in America, or tens of thousands of people packed into Soldier Field in Chicago or AT&T Stadium in Dallas or on a street in Kansas City to watch this team play on a workday afternoon. There were the celebrations of goals and the despair of watching it all slip away, all contained in a few seconds of a few thousand faces.
There are, of course, plenty of things to question, both chances missed and tactics avoided. There were the incredible moments when everything went right. There are things to be sad about. There is the hope this team provided for the future. And all of those feelings exist together.
But it’s that cocktail of emotions — the unbridled glee that precedes the disappointment, the sadness that exists alongside the hope — that makes the World Cup what it is. It comes only every four years, and it’s never enough unless you win. It is always a mixture of regret about what might have been with glimmers of hope for what might be next. You get impossibly drunk on it for a week or two and longer if you’re lucky, and then right at the peak of intoxication a fluffed shot and a final whistle bring the hangover down on you like thunder. But as awful as it feels the next day, no one can tell you it wasn’t one hell of a good time, or that the mix of rage and happiness and sadness and despair isn’t exactly what makes it so.
And for those of you who just caught the fever and want to scratch that World Cup itch again, there is no need to wait four more years. Next June, the United States Women’s National Team will head to Canada for the Women’s World Cup as one of the favorites to win the whole thing, and we can do all of this all over again.