Bryan Phillips of Grantland.com offers this fanciful, yet plausible blueprint for an American victory
OK, fine, it came down to Cristiano Ronaldo. Fine. The United States men’s national team’s path to the knockout stages of the World Cup was let’s just say considerably eased by the most carefully moussed head in world football, while the eyebrows attached to that head arched superciliously and the mouth attached to that head pursed with distaste and the brain inside that head fantasy-popped a million pastel collars. The USMNT didn’t technically need Ronaldo’s goal against Ghana to clear its path out of the group, but the Real Madrid star’s left-footed goal abated what was starting to feel suspiciously like panic. Fine. Credit where it’s due. Ronaldo might not be the most likable figure ever to self-brand his own line of gigantic rhinestone belt buckles, but this is the World Cup. If your squadron of hard-fighting patriots is going to lose 1-0 to the German Mannschaft, you might as well find some comfort in a guy named after Ronald Reagan.
All things considered, it was one of the weirder imaginable runs to the round of 16 for the American team. The results got progressively worse (a win, then a draw, then a loss), only they did so in ways that felt progressively more triumphant (we played badly in the win, then really well in the draw, and then escaped the group in the loss). Literally all of our players broke their noses. We wound up celebrating after losing to Germany, which is exactly the kind of non-regulation historical shenanigans that make the Greatest Generation think soccer is for ballerinas and communists.
And you know what? It makes no difference. We’re through to the last 16. We get Belgium next, which should at least give us a chance to stomp some actual ballerinas. (I’m sorry, but “Eden Hazard” is a name that was born to be followed by “as the Sugar Plum Fairy” on a theater marquee.) Whether we can win is a different question. The Belgians field a small army of European club stars, from Chelsea’s Hazard and Romelu Lukaku to Manchester City’s Vincent Kompany. They entered the tournament as a dark horse favorite. Everyone’s saying that they looked vulnerable in their group-stage matches, and that’s true, although the way people are saying it does kind of tend to overlook the fact that the USMNT spent the majority of its group-stage matches one Beasley or Gonzalez or Beckerman clearance away from being goal-scored-on back to the Stone Age.
We could win this game. It could happen. The narrowness of Belgium’s attack will play into the USA’s defensive strength in the center of the pitch. Clint Dempsey is so haunted and broken and grimly determined at this point that I wouldn’t bet against him in a gunfight, much less a soccer game. It’s also possible, and indeed to be hoped, that Jurgen Klinsmann will surreptitiously field Ronaldo as a naturalized American winger called “Kyle Perfecto.” You’ll recognize him by the portrait of Abe Lincoln shaved into his left temple.
If we make it to the quarterfinals, we’d likely play Argentina, which, hoo boy, OK, but let’s say Messi eats some bad churrasco. The biggest win in U.S. soccer history would then lead us to a possible semifinal against Mexico, which we would obviously win 2-0. That would land us in the final against Brazil, where we would lose 3-0, because even my absurd fantasy has limits, but there would at least be enough bad calls that we could blame the referee.
I guess what I’m saying is this: The United States men’s national soccer team is the best soccer team in the world.