So you are aware, universe: despite the fact that I will be progressively engaged in figuring out what our lives as a family will look like in the fall and will almost certainly not be in front of a television set at 4:00 PM tomorrow after noon due to such things , I cannot make any claim to living in the real world right now, because I believe this Round of 16 match between the United States and Belgium is the most important in the modern history of this program.
If the form table holds, Belgium will win. Period. The image in Brian Cook’s match preview – all the Belgian players with all the price tags that all those European clubs have slapped on them – tells it all. This is a classy, classy team, and coming in was UEFA’s dark horse to win the whole thing.
At least as regards the group standings, through six knockout matches, the form table has continually held. All six group winners who have played are quarterfinalists. I think the idea that Switzerland might defeat Argentina – in a South American World Cup – would have been abject comedy BEFORE France drew up the blueprint on how to poke holes into the Swiss defense like so much cheese. I’m sorry. The United States should not win this match.
I’m taking one step further. Going forward from Portugal in 2002, the United States has never won a match that they weren’t favored in. USA-Mexico in 2002 was the classic grudge match and didn’t have a favorite. Germany knocked us out in 2002. The Czechs torched us in 2006, and even as wild as that Italy match was we couldn’t beat them. For all the legend of 2010, the only match we won – the Algeria match – was against a team we were comprehensively better than, and it took THAT Landon Donovan goal to win it.
Our shock wins in modern World Cups were in 1994 and 2002. Ancient. History. Sure, the football we’ve played in Brazil has been as elegant and robust as ever, but it’s resulted in a last-gasp 2-1 win over Ghana – the team we were supposed to beat, a disappointing 2-2 draw against Portugal – the team that was there for the taking, and a 0-1 loss to Germany – the game we were supposed to lose.
Have we actually improved, or not?
This is the cruel thing about being a national team from North America. Nobody will ever rate CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying as highly as they should. The Gold Cup has improved from the days that we would invite a South American “guest team” to compete for our own continental championship, but it still rates behind the African Cup of Nations as a relevant continental trophy, to say nothing of the Copa America and the Euro. Everything else is friendlies, friendlies, friendlies. The rare invite to a Confederations Cup is everything to us and a glorified friendly tournament to a South American or European nation. We think a lot more about those 2008 matches against Spain and Brazil than anyone else in the world, I guarantee.
This is the cruel thing about being a national team from the United States or from Mexico. You are supposed to play in this tournament, every time. The national mania surrounding Mexico’s elimination at the hands of those  Dutch was nothing compared to the national depression that would have emerged if Panama had held on to defeat the United States in October and eliminated Mexico without hope of even the playoff for half a spot. Mexico has been eliminated in six straight World Cups at the round-of-16 stage. I guarantee you the Mexicans prefer that to the alternative that was staring them in the face in October. Failure to participate in this tournament is not an option. Even Costa Rica has reached a point where they feel pressure to qualify every time out.
This is the cruel thing about being a national team outside a power confederation. There is only one truly competitive tournament you compete in, where every nation sends their best players and clubs understand and appreciate the value of that tournament.
This is the cruel thing about the United States’ position. The quality of their national team is defined by their performance in the World Cup. Period.
The United States is consistently one of the top 32 national teams in the world. Potentially, the United States can be consistently considered one of the top 16 national teams in the world now. There is a success in a second successive knockout stage to this competition.
But we have been qualifying for World Cups consistently for 24 years now. We hosted this very tournament 20 years ago. Major League Soccer is old enough for college. There is a whole generation of players who has not known the United States without a proper first-division professional league to aspire to. At a certain point, the team has to prove its worth.
The United States has impressed with the quality of their play. Jürgen Klinsmann is the hand this team needed, the man who understands European professionalism and American professionalism and where the two meet. I believed that before he was hired, and I still believe that. His selections have been very solid. Even the selections we all questioned have demonstrated worth on the field.
And, for all that, so far, we’re 1-1-1. No better than .500 ball. A few people who don’t understand World Cups have grumbled that, in some endeavors, .500 ball will get you fired. They’re not wrong.
The United States needs a singular, dominant win. Against a quality European nation. At the highest level. In the one tournament that genuinely matters.
Fail tomorrow, and it’s four years before they get another shot. If they get another shot like this.
Knockout stages of the World Cup are so tantalizing. It’s four games to a title – and not just any title, but one of THE titles in world sport, a trophy that changes lives forever. I will never forget Ian Grant writing about Watford’s chase for promotion to the English Premiership – about finishing third in a national second-division club football league! – and how he used a Harry Grant quote to set the stakes, a quote I’ll revisit here fifteen years on:
The chance of ultimate possibility kept repeating itself in his head, a mad little chant that would not stop, nor did he want it to. Too Much had explained it to him…. Everything is chance, and chance is everything, she had told him. Most people refused to believe that, because chance frightened them. But that was only ignorance. Chance contained every possibility. Of course, some of it might be bad…but a heartbeat away from what might be bad, unthinkably bad, was what might be unthinkably great, a bliss that even the gods would envy.
Ultimate possibility. Is there any greater example of this than a nation that had only ancient history at the sport of soccer not even three decades ago chasing after the greatest prize in the sport? 
It’s nearly impossible to conceive. Argentina, and Lionel Messi with them, would be the all-but-certain quarterfinal opponent. Dare Costa Rica dream of an all-CONCACAF semifinal, or would the opponent be the  Dutch and all their ruthlessness? And what kind of footballing royalty would await in a final? The Germans or the French, wanting to add to their trophy case? The absolutely irresistible Colombians, wanting revenge for 1994 – and with the player in James Rodríguez who could deliver that revenge with a spectacular volley? Or – of course, of course – the hosts, who haven’t lost at home in a tournament for longer than we’ve thought to even matter?
And yet it would only take four games.
Four games to find a form unlike any we’ve ever seen. Four games for Jozy Altidore to fulfill his potential. Four games for Michael Bradley to rediscover his first touch. Four games for DaMarcus Beasley to become what we dreamed him to be long ago. Four games for Tim Howard to make us forget Brad Friedel or Kasey Keller. Four games for Clint Dempsey to truly become Captain America, the greatest we have ever known, maybe the greatest we ever will see wear the shirt.
It’s impossible. It’s just not time yet. Surely there are better players in the pipeline to come, for 2018 or for 2022.
And yet, what if…?
Four games. Four wins. The chance of ultimate possibility.
It starts now.
 Dear loved ones: if you see me tomorrow afternoon between 4:00 PM and 6:00 PM – and possibly after – it will almost certainly be with an earbud in my ear and with all kinds of nerves going on. Please forgive me.
 cheating, filthy, horrible, you-could-confuse-them-for-being-Mexican-if-they-weren’t-wearing-those-stupid-orange-jerseys, Arjan-Robben-is-the-lousiest-excuse-for-a-footballer-this-side-of-Luis-Hernandez, oh-I-hate-them-so-much
 You can read all the reports of that Watford season, which together I believe constitute the greatest story of a season of English football ever, and which I don’t ever tire of reading – and I don’t even support Watford! If nothing else, make sure you read how Watford’s chase of ultimate possibility ended.