Back when he was managing the St. Louis Cardinals, Tony La Russa used to have this rule about celebrations. (This is an apt way to describe Tony La Russa, in the abstract. He is the sort of person who has rules about celebrations.) If the Cardinals clinched a wildcard or a division championship with another team winning rather than the Cardinals winning -- if, say, the magic number went to zero with a Reds loss rather than a Cardinals win -- La Russa would not stand for the spraying of champagne in the locker room. "We celebrate with a win," he'd say. This could lead to the unique awkwardness of the team pressing to win so they could toast a division championship they'd actually earned a week earlier.
Suffice to say: La Russa would make a terrible soccer coach. (Though I can imagine him playing the keeper as a third striker or something, just to mess with people.)
The United States clinched a trip to the Round of 16 with a 1-0 loss to Germany on Thursday afternoon, and Americans, as a whole, just weren't sure how to feel about it. On one hand, we packed into bars all across the country, painting our faces, donning Abe Lincoln top hats, getting "Don't Tread On Me" tattoos -- I personally was wearing an American flag cape -- only to watch our team outplayed by an obviously superior side that probably should have beaten us by more than they did. On the other hand, the result of that game -- thanks to Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo -- ended up with the United States escaping the Group of Death and advancing to the Round of 16, one of the top three most significant and impressive achievements in the history of American soccer. It was an amazing afternoon… as long as you didn't mind losing.
It led to all sorts of confusion. We all left our collective sports bars -- or wandered into our collective employee lounges -- and sort of shrugged at each other. Today was a major breakthrough in this nation's soccer history. We knew this intellectually. But emotionally it was difficult to process. We were happier today after a loss than we were Sunday after a draw … by a lot.
This is part of our American transition to soccer, and I wonder how well some people are going to be able to handle it. Because for all the idiotic prattle being written about America and What's Wrong With Soccer -- and there is so, so much -- there are some parts of the game, the way it is scored and tallied and timed, that do, in fact, run counter to what many consider the American character. The athletic heroes that Americans profess to admire -- namely Michael Jordan, the most influential sports figure of the last 40 years -- are driven by a win-at-all-costs insanity that tends to ruin their lives off the field but provide us a manly, bodice-ripping ideal on it. We aren't supposed to celebrate losing, even if it benefits us. That's not part of The American Character.
(It is worth noting, by the way, that The American Character is basically a sloppy conflagration of caricatures of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Ronald Reagan and Mike Ditka, the purview of privileged white men who also think Pete Rose should be in the Hall of Fame because he "hustled" and only embraced Muhammad Ali when it was expedient and risk-free for them to do so. These people are dying out, but they are not out of power.)
We measure ourselves by wins and losses, exclusively. The thing about this is that it is dumb. "Wins" and "losses" are the bluntest statistics imaginable, results that betray the process. When you look and see that the Oakland A's are 48-30 and have the best record in baseball, that is the result of a million little decisions, countless of which could have gone the other way for no reason other than blind damned luck. That could be 42-36, or even 39-39, without the A's doing anything particularly wrong. We write luck and chance into our records in other sports and acknowledge them only when we have to. The Detroit Tigers have a four-game lead in the AL Central. If they were in the AL West, they'd be four games out. But they're not. The Tigers' current success is in large part due to the struggles of the rest of their division. But it doesn't feel that way to the fans. It just feels like they're in first.
That's how we should be feeling about Thursday. The U.S. lost, but they are advancing because of what happened before then. They advanced because they tied Portugal and Ghana lost to them; they advanced because they lost 1-0 to Germany and Portgual lost 4-0. These things matter in all of our sports. But for some reason they make us feel strange in soccer.
I wonder if it's because, already, we've gotten a little spoiled by our soccer. The United States hasn't just advanced to the Round of 16 the last two World Cups, we've generally done it in the most dramatic way possible. The crazy stoppage time goal against Algeria in 2010. The John Brooks header against Ghana. Clint Dempsey's 82nd-minute goal to (almost) complete a wild comeback against Portugal. These are pants-wetting highlights that most nations, even the successful ones, don't often get. And we've had them happen so often that we can put together countless reaction videos, like it's nothing. Ask the Ivory Coast -- a nation with better team in recent years than the U.S., and with more on the line -- how many wild fan videos they have? Us? Our soccer history is this:
On Thursday, we didn't get to have a moment like that. Germany controlled every aspect of the game, and the U.S. didn't score. (The biggest roar at the bar I was at came from Ronaldo's goal.) There will be no reaction videos from the U.S.-Germany game. That makes it feel like this has lost momentum, like the U.S. somehow fell short.
But it didn't, and neither did we. The United States advanced with a loss because they deserved to advance with a loss. Ask the team how it feels after the loss.
They're happy! And you should be too. Because Spain would love to be watching its team. Or England. Or Italy. Or Ecuador. Or Portugal. But they're not. We are. It feels weird. It feels counterintuitive.
But you're gonna have to get over that. Because the United States plays Tuesday against Belgium, even though it lost today, even though your bar experience wasn't as satisfying as you thought it would be, even though it would drive Tony La Russa nuts. It's going to be another great party. It doesn't matter how you got there: All that matters is that you are there.
So go ahead and celebrate. It is fantastic what just happened. And there is more to come.
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