I thought it had happened. I really did. I thought Chris Wondolowski had scored a goal in the World Cup. I thought Jermaine Jones's perfectly placed through ball had put Wondo in the exact place he lives, breathes and eats the moss on the side of rocks for sustenance, the place he is at home: in the six-yard box with the ball at his foot. It was all there and then it wasn't.
I've been abroad for the entire World Cup, but everyone I speak to back home says there's a new level of enthusiasm this time around, something they've never seen before. The numbers back this up: 18.22 million viewers for U.S.-Portugal, about nine times more than the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier last September. I don't know why this is happening now or what has changed seemingly so suddenly in the American sporting spectacle that so many are now willing to embrace soccer, but by all accounts, it does seem to be happening.
The focus has largely been on Tim Howard's stellar performance, which is fair enough, but a keeper can't have a great game unless his defense hangs him out to try, which is what the American back line did for most of the 120 minutes against Belgium. While the Belgians had a shape and structure to their game, the U.S. consistently collapsed into the middle, doing their best to clog the center with Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in front of centerbacks Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez.
At times, the U.S. looked disorganized and unsure of themselves while defending. Other times, they demonstrated a lack of discipline, communication or both, collapsing on the ball and leaving the flanks wide open. Fortunately for the U.S., Belgium spent most of the game squandering these chances, something they have generally excelled at during the World Cup so far.
Let's get this out of the way right now: the U.S. was astoundingly fortunate for this game to even go to extra time. If you showed me Belgium's shot chart prior to the game but didn't tell me the result, I would have put good money Belgium scored at least two goals.
The U.S. was also fortunate that Marc Wilmots, the Belgium manager, opted to start Divock Origi, their 19 year-old striker, instead of Romelu Lukaku, their far superior striker who nevertheless had struggled a bit in the group stage. Origi created a few chances and put a few shots on goal, but who on Belgium didn't? Lukaku may have had fresh legs when he came on just before extra time, but it was obvious how little he thought of the U.S. defense, and rightly so. He immediately tormented them, taking on as many as three defenders at once and still winning the ball. The first Belgian goal was a result of Lukaku shrugging off Matt Besler effortlessly, opening up the entire right side. Lukaku had a good 40 yards ahead of him and brought the ball to the near post without being challenged. This is the game -- the one where our defenders were eyelashes on Lukaku's face -- we could have watched all along.
The U.S. clearly wanted to sit back, defend and hit on the counterattack, a bit of a misdirection on Klinsmann's part after all his rah-rah New American Soccer Identity rhetoric prior to the tournament. There were times during this game where I felt like I was watching a Bob Bradley team, absorbing blows and near-misses before a slow, meandering, ponderous and ultimately hapless counterattack.
When running a counter, a team needs a quick and decisive man up top to occupy defenders and ultimately provide some kind of direction. The target man's run and how the defense reacts provide the key to the entire counter. This is the problem with playing Clint Dempsey up top: he doesn't work as a counterattacking striker. He's slow, too deliberate with his passes and shots, requires too many touches, and often slows down the attack either through indecisiveness or his lack of pace. Dempsey is at his best running these counters from behind the target man, as he does when Jozy Altidore is in the lineup. Without Jozy, Klinsmann is asking Dempsey to play a strategy out of position. It's not a good look.
This is the thing about soccer, though: the better team usually wins, but they often don't. Soccer entertains far more debates about who "was the better side" than any other sport simply because it is so often a separate question from who won the game. Goals come against the run of play, teams dominating all the chances hit the post twice instead of scoring twice. Post-match soul-searching is one of the more common forms of daydreaming amongst soccer fans.
This was not one of those matches. Belgium was the better team and so they will play Argentina in the matchup the rest of the world wanted. But it almost was one of those matches. It was almost a daytime mugging victory, one of those how the hell did we pull that off kind of games. It would have been a legitimate small miracle, every misplayed ball, defensive lapse and poor pass mitigated into irrelevance. Klinsmann's questionable tactics and personnel decisions would have been forgotten, or even crowned in the pantheon of sporting genius.
But soccer is a game of revisionist history, where the score at the final whistle obscures many of the events of the preceding hours. We tend to forget the almosts and the half-chances. I wonder how many of the 18 million people watching the game last night in the U.S. will even remember Wondolowski's chance before the end of regulation, a chance to win the game despite all logic, a chance to send U.S. Soccer into a kind of pandemonium generally reserved for election cycles, the chance to give the 16 million newcomers to the sport something to truly celebrate and cement the sport into their lives. I hope we never forget the ball was on his foot.