Last week, you snuck out of the office at noon, evading co-workers and denying meeting requests. At the bar crowded around flatscreens, you found kinship in a room full of social deviants: die-hard soccer fans and assorted day-drinkers. Did the U.S. touch the ball for first twenty minutes of the game against Germany? Probably not. Torrents of rain drenched the field, the city, the American spirit.
Who cares? We advanced, you cry out, sending blessings to Cristiano Ronaldo and John Brooks alike. After the game, a friend bought you a victory shot and the whiskey softened the edges around your eyes. You imagine this must be how Jurgen Klinsmann feels in every moment of life: a cocoon of certainty impervious to the arrows that assault the rest of humankind from sunrise to sun down.
In the week since the Germany game, strange things have happened. On Sunday, your parents called, but instead of asking about your job they wanted to know how you thought the U.S. would fare against Belgium (no doubt seeking social capital to bandy about work the next day). You rattle through the pre-game talking points: the banged-up Belgian defense, their bruising attackers, the hazard of Hazard. You say that Belgium is a team whose sum does not exceed its components parts. They're dangerous but untested: strong, brittle, and capable of breaking.
While Belgium has good players, you conclude, the United States has a good team that endured the Group of Death. Belgium labored to win the Group of Certain Passage to the Round of 16. On Tuesday, you say, your voice artificially inflecting with confidence, the Americans will arrive in Salvador, rested, un-waffled, and amped to advance to the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time since 2002.
But silently, you're terrified. This American team has been so inconsistent and so reliant on individual heroics; can they muster another gutsy, Yankee performance? Will the American team that played inventive, aggressive soccer against Portugal arrive in Salvador? Or will we see the bunker-first, second, and third mentality that reigned against Ghana and Germany? Despite the fleeting moments of Jurgen-esque positivity you felt after the Germany game, your sunny disposition has faded into a drooping frown by the start of the working week.
On Monday, your co-workers email you every pro-USA meme that crosses their Twitter feed. Soon, pseudo-ironic patriotic fervor is electronically darting around your office like a game of imperialist ping pong. Have you seen this one, they ask, showing you a photo of Clint Dempsey astride a bald eagle about to devour a Belgian waffle and six-pack of Stella Artois.
Two people share with you the same trend piece about soccer bars.
Part of you wants to toss these bandwagon fans off the U.S.A. train. This World Cup, this unbridled joy, this crippling agony, this love (because that's the only thing to call it) cannot be found in Internet memes or trendy bars where the dominant color palette is plaid. This love is the fear you get when you see the purple stands of Estadio Saprissa. This love is Jermaine Jones's sno-fro. This love is fear, self-loathing, and depression. This love is the low boil in your blood at the mere mention of Rafa Marquez's name.
But wait, you think. This love is not a selfish love. This love has given you so much joy—so many moments of pure emotional bliss—you must now let that love radiate out from the Monongahela to the Mississippi like the light from Lady Liberty's torch. It's time, you think, to open up the big tent, America, and like a carnival barker, you must rave like a madman, reeling in the unbelievers one-by-one. If the U.S. is going to advance deep into this World Cup, you know we'll need the power of every prayer from every denomination, deepening the reservoir of belief surging Tim Howard's hands and Clint Dempsey's boots.
All are welcome to worship at the temple of American soccer, you think. And maybe in two years someone you to took this match will be sweating beside you during the Copa América Centenario. In three, they'll be in Columbus, cheering just as loudly as you are for one more dos à cero.
On Tuesday, you arrive at work wearing your white U.S.A. shirt, crisp and ironed. There's no need to conceal it under a button down today; you don't have to sneak out of the office to catch the game. Your boss emailed yesterday, and she's reserved a table at the bar for whole staff. The first pitcher is on me, she says with a smily face. She ends her email with a phrase you've sung so many times that it has almost lost its meaning: I believe that we will win.
At 3:45, you walk over to the bar with your colleagues. It's nice to have a little extra company for a change.
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