American fans have needed several hours to parse out exactly how they feel about Portugal‘s buzzer-beating tie against the United States on Sunday. The USMNT held the mighty Cristiano Ronaldo scoreless, but they puked up a goal in the first five minutes. However, they also demonstrated enough skill and mental toughness to come back and tie it up. Sloppy defensive mistakes (and I’m not talking about Michael Bradley) came back to haunt them, but they played really, really well for about 89 of the 95 minutes. But for the past several months the USMNT would have been ecstatic with four points from two games in this group.
But the Americans deserved to win.
In the world of soccer, Americans are used to being plucky underdogs, novelties, a rag-tag bunch who wandered off the street to take on the big bad world. With all due homage to the forefathers of American soccer, this is not 1994. Goalie Tim Howard is a bona fide world-class player. A couple of years ago, Clint Dempsey was the fourth-highest scorer in the English Premier League. Though he hasn’t had a great tournament, Bradley is good enough to play for anyone in the world. These guys are professional athletes making real money who have played with the best of the best, and it’s okay to expect them to win. As coach Jurgen Klinsmann said, part of the reason Group G is considered the group of death is “because we are in it.”
Maybe the soccer world has grossly underestimated this team. Maybe it’s time to adjust our expectations. All across the United States people have been chanting “I believe that we will win” with rabid enthusiasm. But it wasn’t until late last night that the meaning of those words really sank in. For a few minutes, we truly did believe that we were going to win the game, maybe the group, and then the sky was the limit. That’s why it hurt. Growing pains always hurt.
Sometime while we weren’t looking, America became a genuine soccer country. We can’t hide behind our old excuses anymore. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about this United States team, it’s that they can hang with anyone in the world and they know it. There is nothing stopping them but their own mental mistakes. America’s soccer fanbase has grown up enough to hold them accountable and to admit they deserved to win. Regardless of what happens on Thursday, that’s something to be very, very excited about.