In the past week I have heard people refer to “the greatest World Cup match in U.S. history” or “the best victory in U.S. history.”
I must have heard that about 10 different matches.
For a reputed outsider, USA is starting to develop a past. It is one of seven nations to have qualified for the last seven World Cup tournaments. It has reached the knockout round four of those times. This is no small accomplishment, to go along with the knowledgeable crowds everywhere.
I thought of that growing history on Thursday, just before the tense struggle with Germany in monsoon-lashed Recife.
I was in a green room at MSNBC waiting for my minutes on camera to mention my book as often as I dared. Another network guest sharing the green room was Jeff Agoos, the defender on the 2002 World Cup team, now working with Major League Soccer.
In that hope-giving year, Agoos had been in precisely the same situation the US now faced in Brazil – a simultaneous third match that could have gone either way.
Agoos smiled when I mentioned the similarities. He had played in the first two matches in South Korea, scoring an own goal in the 3-2 upset over Portugal, and playing the full 90 in the draw with the host team. Then he was hurt in the third match, as the US was being hammered by Poland, 3-1, and was replaced by 20-year-old DaMarcus Beasley. Agoos went into the locker room for treatment – and followed the news as Portugal had two players tossed out of the match, and gave up a goal to Park Ji Sung in the 70th minute.
Agoos recalled how the US survived that loss to Poland. From that soft crash landing came the 2-0 victory over Mexico and the 1-0 loss to Germany, which some experts think was technically and competitively better than the Mexico match.
With huge crowds and unprecedented television ratings all over the country, the U.S. is adding to its soccer history.
On Thursday I stuck a pair of plugs in my ears and watched both matches in the newsroom of MSNBC. The U.S. stood off a furious attack in the first 15 minutes but gave up a shrieking parabola by Thomas Muller for a 1-0 deficit that could have gotten worse, much worse.
For 23 tense minutes, the US was in danger of being knocked out of this World Cup after Ghana rallied for a draw with Portugal. The Germans respected the game by playing hard while seeking a record-breaking goal by Miroslav Klose.
Then, in the 80th minute, good old Cristiano Ronaldo stopped being the preening, smirking pretty boy and became the savior of the Americans’ World Cup, lashing a goal that put Portugal ahead, 2-1. When that game ended, I heard cheers around the newsroom. Many journalists had been following the match on their computers.
Twelve years after the anxious wait in Daejon, South Korea, the USA had lost a perilous third match yet survived the simultaneous match.
One more example of history: a few weeks ago, in that same green room, I ran into Bruce Murray, the striker of the 1990 American team. One manic night in Olympic Stadium in Rome, Murray had blasted a free kick at Italy’s superb keeper, Walter Zenga, who barely flicked it away, but Peter Vermes nearly put the rebound under Zenga, who groveled to keep the ball from crossing the line.
Now 46 and a youth coach in Bethesda, Md., Murray could only shake his head at how close he and his teammate had come to scoring against Italy.
In the future, fans will agonize over the ball that squibbed off Michael Bradley’s foot against Portugal last Sunday, and how three or four defenders allowed Ronaldo to lash a cross that a teammate headed for a goal.
Americans will remember those unfortunate moments, the same way they talk about the Joe Gaetjens goal that almost nobody saw in 1950, the Paul Caligiuri goal in 1989, the Landon Donovan goal in 2010, the John Brooks header in 2014. They will also remember the gallant battle to stay within 1-0 against Germany (the team I picked to win this Cup.)
We can all argue the rankings of these great moments, these terrifying moments, but the point is: this country is starting to have a soccer history we can actually debate.
(Photo Above: Peter Vermes Battles Italy's Franco Baresi. Now part of American soccer history.)