While games are defined by their mechanics, they are often remembered for the narrative those mechanics allow. Knowing the mechanics gives you an idea of what to hope for. As a young person, the more familiar I became with the mechanics of soccer, the more I began to dream.
I was standing in the middle of a sports bar in Mount Juliet Tennessee with my brother chanting “I believe that we will win” with the soccer crazed crowd when Romelu Lukaku was able to cut past Matt Bessler’s tackle, dribble into the box and find Kevin DeBruyne, who slotted the ball perfectly into the far corner of the goal. It was a perfectly placed goal–the only kind that could have beaten Tim Howard that day. Ten minutes later, toward the end of the first period of extra time, DeBruyne played a simple pass into the box for Lukaku whose legs were 90 minutes fresher than Bessler and rifled the ball front post at such pace that no human being could react quickly enough to stop it.
The first period of extra time was over and so were our hopes of making it to the quarter finals.
Having played, coached, and followed United States soccer for years, I consider myself, like many US soccer fans, to be an ambassador of the sport. Coaching soccer isn’t just about helping young people enjoy a hobby but advancing the sport. I’d been coaching and evangelizing the sport long enough that I felt a personal stake in what was unfolding in Salvador and this display was too painful to watch. My brother and I left the bar, got in my car and listened to the game on the radio.
When I started playing competitive travel soccer at 12 years old, my mother, who has always had a deep interest in psychology, challenged me to spend some time before each game visualizing what I wanted to achieve. I imagined myself striking the ball in the center, my toe pointed down, my body over the ball, and shoulders squared to goal. I saw my shooting leg following through and my other taking flight such that my entire body was in motion. I saw the ball traveling toward the uppermost far corner of the net.
I’m not sure how much these visualization techniques helped. I was never the best goal scorer on the teams I played for. In fact, by the time I got to my sophomore year of high school, I stopped visualizing myself scoring goals and started seeing myself playing sharp crosses into the box, making runs down the sideline and hitting a perfect far post corner. I was voted captain and most inspirational player by my teammates.
When I turned the radio on, ESPN announcer Tommy Smyth was harping about Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to bring Julian Green on for Alejandro Bedoya. “You have to put in someone who gives you a chance to win. I don’t understand this decision. Is Klinsmann giving up?”
I wonder if Julian Green visualized his first touch of the ball in the World Cup going into the back of the net against one of the best keepers in the world? He may not have visualized it in same way I did, sitting in the back of my mom’s minivan on the way to soccer matches, but I bet he dreamed it.
He not only dreamed it; he curved his run around Toby Alderweireld so as to stay on-side when Bradley deftly chipped the ball into the box. Green then brought his leg across his body and managed to redirect the ball into the opposite corner of the goal, beating Thibaut Courtois, one of the best keepers in the world.
The game finished with the United States losing 2-1 after Jermaine Jones shot a header over the bar and Clint Dempsey missed a 1 on 1 with Courtois. We lost in the most American way possible: fighting to the very end and refusing to accept that Belguim was better despite the level of talent on their roster.
I dream about how Dempsey equalizing or Wondolowski hitting the game winner in the 93rd minute would have changed the narrative of American soccer. A different story would have been written about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Perhaps Dempsey, Wondowlowski, and Jones hadn’t spent enough time visualizing themselves finishing. Perhaps they wanted someone else to bear that mantle. Maybe they just missed.
The belief of United States soccer fans is a bit over the top. We have no business chanting, “I believe that we will win,” in the face of superior opponents like Belguim and Germany. And yet, I can’t help but think how very few people believed that Green would do anything positive for the United States, much less put the ball in the back of the net.
Klinsmann believed in Green by putting him in the match. Michael Bradley believed by passing Green the ball. Green believed. He made a run around a world class defender and did the unthinkable. He made believers of us all.