Let’s go back to Monday night. John Brooks headed home a corner kick in the dying moments of a (group of) death match with Ghana and sent Americans spiraling in delight. It was a big win, an important win. Truthfully, any victory in the World Cup qualifies as such.
But the widespread celebration shows just how new to this soccer thing we are as a country. Don’t get me wrong. It gives me great joy that citizens who spent their lives deriding a sport that I spent mine loving have been drawn to the beautiful game. Be excited. You should be.
The World Cup can do that to a viewer. Games have a knack, to paraphrase Red Smith, for killing fiction. Take Brooks’ goal. The last man to make Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad enters the game in the second half to replace a limping Matt Besler. Brooks, a 21-year-old German-American centerback, played the role of hero as his more celebrated teammates suffered through injury — Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey — or dispirited play — Michael Bradley. Brooks scored, ran off in exaltation with arms and eyes to the sky, and Ian Darke broke into hyperbole on the play-by-play. “He couldn’t even have dreamt that!” said Darke. Apparently he could.
Still, it’s just three points as Tim Howard tweeted in the hours following the dramatic 2-1 win, despite the vengeful nature of the result. Ghana eliminated the Americans at each of the last two World Cups. The Black Stars served as a hurdle in the never-ending race to soccer contention. We cleared it, finally, and it’s time to move on. The U.S. is 1-0 with the number four- and two-ranked countries in the world left to play.
Leave it to our biggest rivals, Mexico, to put things back in perspective. El Tri earned a point Tuesday afternoon by virtue of a 0-0 draw with hosts Brazil. It was a dogged performance, one filled with hard tackles and brilliant goalkeeping from Guillermo Ochoa. He needed every inch of his right hand, which, contrary to popular belief, has the normal five fingers, to go Gordon Banks on Neymar’s header midway through the first half.
Thiago Silva had a great chance to steal the three points for the Brazilians in the latter stages. He too had a free header from well inside the penalty area. Again, Ochoa was there for the save.
With four points entering its final group game against Croatia, Mexico will likely advance to the knockout stages for the sixth straight World Cup. Think about that. This is a nation the U.S. has surpassed in the last 15 years to the tune of a 12-5-5 head-to-head record against El Tri. Four of those defeats came in the famed fortress, El Estadio Azteca. And yet we’ve reached the knockout stages just three times in our last six World Cup appearances.
Part of it is our difference in attitudes. Mexico believes it stands among the world powers. Our motto, on the other hand, is, “Don’t tread on me.” We play the role of underdog even against the 37th ranked country in the world and lose our minds in the process. Mexico scrapes out a 0-0 draw with Brazil, a much better result in any context than a 2-1 win over Ghana, and moves on.
We beat a team we should beat. It’s time we take a lesson from our neighbors to the south and act like we belong, too.