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George Ferguson Column: Closer, but we're still left heartbroken

From the Fringe...

 

July 2, 2014

AP Photo

Emily Larsen, of Midlothian, grips her flag as the clock winds down in extra-time during a watch party for a World Cup soccer match between United States and Belgium in Arlington, Texas on Tuesday.

I’m not a bandwagon sports fan. I have my favorite teams and favorite players and favorite events, and I stick by them. As a Michael Jordan fan, a fan of the Chicago Bulls, it was easy. As a fan of the Minnesota Vikings, not so much.

And though I stick by my teams, and by my favorite athletes, I can also be a realist. I realize, that while I hope I have a lot of life left in me, I’m probably not going to see my Chicago Cubs win the World Series. I realize that I’ll probably never see a Triple Crown winner in horse racing and, unfortunately, I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see my beloved Montana Grizzlies win another national championship in football.

Those realizations aren’t easy to handle sometimes, but sports aren’t life and death, and I go on and love my teams anyway.

And that’s how we all feel about the United States men’s national soccer team. They break our hearts, they probably aren’t going to win a World Cup anytime soon, probably not in my lifetime, and over the last two weeks, all of us who love Team USA have had to realize that.

But we love the Red, White and Blue anyway.

Over the last two weeks, the U.S. men’s team has taken us on one special journey, one of mind-numbing drama, one of moments of pure jubilation, one of shocking sadness and one of pure heartache.

All those emotions can be daunting to us fans who hang on the edge of our seats with each match. But we love the U.S. men’s soccer team anyway.

The 2014 World Cup isn’t over, but for U.S. soccer fans it now is. For all of us who love to watch the U.S. play in one of the world’s biggest sporting events, on a stage that’s considered the biggest in what is the world’s game, the ride is done. And it ended in total heartache.

In fact, agony and heartache seem to define the U.S. national team, no matter how exciting their performance has been in this World Cup.

I mean, think about all the agony this U.S. team endured.

First, back in January, when the World Cup draw came out, Team USA was placed in the “Group of Death.” With only two spots available in the Round of 16 and the USA ranked just No. 14 in the FIFA world rankings at the time, surely there was no way the Americans were going to advance out of a group with Germany, Portugal and their biggest World Cup nemesis, Ghana. So for those six months, Team USA, and all American fans had to listen to how there was no way we were moving on.

But Team USA proved all the naysayers wrong, emphatically wrong. The win over Ghana was spectacular. The draw with Christiano Renaldo and Portugal, a comeback for the ages was incredible, and the 1-0 loss to the Germans was enough to get us on to the Knockout Stage.

But still, in all of that excitement, and it was pure soccer joy, there was so much pain and agony.

Against Ghana, Team USA lost veteran striker Jozy Altidore. Despite all of the magical moments for the Americans in this World Cup, the loss of Altidore cannot be understated. The USA lacked enough possession to get past the big European teams they faced in Brazil, and a big reason why was no Altidore.

Then came Portugal. A win would have pushed USA to the Round of 16, and perhaps given the Americans a chance to win the group and play a second-place Algeria instead of powerhouse Belgium. And late in that game against Portugal, the fifth-best team in the world, the USA was on its way to a win. But then came more heartache. A goal by Portugal in the final 30 seconds of extra time cut the hearts out of Team USA, and all of us who seemed to care so much.

More pain came when the USA couldn’t equalize against Germany. Not enough goals, not enough offense.

The story remained the same for the USA Tuesday against Belgium. For 90 minutes, Tim Howard and the USA defense turned away the Belgium attack, again and again. But then, in extra time, two goals by Belgium, and several close-range misses by the USA brought more shocking heartache.

For fans of Team USA, it seems like this story just continues to repeat itself. The highest of highs in a sport that is considered an after-thought at times in our country, only to end in tears and heartache.

But we love Team USA anyway.

I’ll admit, I’m a casual observer of Team USA for three years, I’m a casual observer of Major League Soccer and, overall, I’m a casual fan of the “Beautiful Game.” But when the World Cup comes, for me, everything changes. I become a rabid fan of Team USA, and if I had the means, I would have been in Brazil, in the stands and going crazy with the rest of the Americans for the last two weeks. I would have been in Brazil, shedding tears after Tuesday afternoon’s loss to Belgium.

As it were, I was one of the millions of Americans back here at home, going insane in front of my television, emotional, loud, screaming and crying, left in heartache.

But you know what, I wouldn’t have traded this last two weeks for anything in the world.

American fans have really, finally, and truly embraced soccer. More tickets to the World Cup were purchased by Americans than any other nationality outside of South America. As soccer fans, we get it. But still, we’re left with heartache. Yet, we love Team USA anyway.

It’s been talked about forever, especially since the World Cup was held in the United States back in 1994. When will the United States catch up to the rest of the world in soccer? When will it be our turn to be the best? When will young athletes with athletic skills like LeBron James, Mike Trout and Cam Newton choose to play soccer full time and lead the USA to World Cup glory?

Those questions were answered in Brazil over the last two weeks. And the answer is, not yet. We are not quite there in soccer. Are we closer? Most definitely. I feel like this was one of the best United States sides to ever play in a World Cup. They were never dominated in the final score, even playing against super powers like Germany, Portugal and Belgium. They were right there, and they had many, many chances to go farther than a loss in the Round of 16.

Yet, as magical, exciting and special as Team USA was in Brazil, deep down inside, deep in my heart, I knew it would end the way it did. I knew I would be crushed. That’s the current inevitablility about American men’s soccer. It’s not so with the women, but it is with the men.

We’ll never forget the images from this World Cup. We’ll never forget John Brooks’ game-winning goal against Ghana, we’ll never forget Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard’s magic, the comeback against Portugal or our last gasp in extra time against Belgium. It was all wonderful. It was all so much fun.

But Team USA’s run at the 2014 World Cup ended in devastating heartbreak. Just like every other appearance in the World Cup for Team USA. At least for now, that’s how it always ends for the United States at the World Cup, in heartbreak.

As fans, we know that going in. We know we probably aren’t going to win the World Cup anytime soon. We know that for all our love of Team USA, eventually, they will break our hearts.

Yet, we’re proud to be American soccer fans. We’re very proud of what Team USA did in Brazil. Our hearts are broken, and Team USA will probably get their hearts broken again in Russia in 2018.

But, as fans, as Americans, we love them anyway. It’s USA men’s soccer. It’s what we do.

 

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