America came to the first World Cup qualifier in the Ironbound ready to crown King Bruce, to anoint a savior who had lifted a rag-tag and bedraggled army of misused and misfit players from the depths of the Hex and transported them to the promised land of, well, um, Russia. To bookend the match that finally cost the Golden Bomber his job, with the one that would effectively propel the USMNT to its eighth consecutive World Cup appearance.
And so America came, 26,500 strong if you can believe the internet. 1,500 more than the stadium can hold. And they so packed it with outlaws and in-laws, fans and fellow-travelers, players and playas, and so much god-damned press from across the river and around the globe that I was forced to sit on the roof to watch this game. Yes, the god-damned roof. And yet some of you still question my commitment.
America is Waiting: Costa Rica Beats the USMNT
Never mind that the US had lost 4-0 to this same Costa Rican side. Never mind that Costa Rica had impressed and gone deep into the Gold Cup last month. And never mind that no one wanted to play Costa Rica in Brazil a scant three years ago when they were ruining everyone’s World Cup fantasy leagues. We were the United States. This was our moment of vindication. With the wind of the Gold Cup win at our backs, we were poised to make our final three matches of the Hex a walk in the park, a breeze, a piece of cake.
And you could feel it among the fans as I walked the stadium before the match. Not a swaggering bravado, to be sure. But a serious confidence, something deeper and somehow more substantial than I’d felt at the friendly against Ghana and even against El Salvador in the Gold Cup in Philadelphia. For the stakes were not as high in those games. They were nice-to-haves, as it were. Tonight was a must-have.
Which was why they were out in force. And in generations. You could literally tell how long their loyalty had lasted by the jerseys they wore. Look over there, a Damarcus Beasley USMNT jersey with the number seven, and a little further on, with 17, and then 25. And is that a Stuart Holden jersey I see, getting into an argument with someone in a Christian Pulisic Borussia Dortmund jersey, who’s being held back by the guy in the Michael Bradley Metro Stars jersey? All amidst a sea of every conceivable variation of stars and stripes and red, white and blue on every possible permutation of clothing.
America is Waiting for a Message
Before the match, my pal Rafael Soto of Primero en Deportes asked me what I expected from the match, and specifically, what I was worried about. And of course since I cover NYCFC and have become something of a connoisseur of dicey back lines, I said I was worried about the team’s defense. Without John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, I was concerned that against a quality side like Costa Rica the United States could give up an easy goal. Could get beat by speed. Could miss an assignment.
Could Costa Rica beat the US he asked me? Definitely, though I wasn’t expecting it. And frankly, I don’t think he was either.
America is Waiting for a Message of Some Sort or Another
And afterward, oh, the fingers that were pointed and the blame that was spread around. It was the stadium’s fault, that there were too many Costa Rican fans. It was Bruce Arena’s fault, for not subbing on early enough. It was Jozy Altidore’s fault, it was Christian Pulisic’s fault, it was Tim Ream’s fault. It was the ref’s fault. And it was the ref’s fault again in case you didn’t hear me the first time.
How about this. How about Costa Rica just beat the U.S. How about Costa Rica beat the US because they had a better game plan and they had the players to execute it. And how about everyone on the U.S. side had an off night. Not a terrible night – I don’t think there was a single player who looked ridiculous out there and should be sent home to reconsider their career choices. They just had an off night. It happens. On another night, Tim Howard makes that save in the first half. On another night, Keylor Navas doesn’t make that save in the second half. On another night, Pulisic’s shot doesn’t go over the bar, Altidore doesn’t take that extra touch in the box, Nagbe’s shot finds its way through. On another night.
But on this night, well, the USMNT just picked the wrong night to have an off-night. Though to be fair, when in the past nine months would have been a good night to have an off-night? Against Mexico at the Azteca? In the Gold Cup final? Tell me which match in the past nine months you would have preferred for them to tank? And then look me in the eye and tell me you would absolutely have said that at game time and not just now in retrospect.
America is Waiting
So now we wait some more. Until Tuesday, when the team takes on Honduras. In Honduras. Against a team that is now tied on points with the US in the Hex. A team I have also seen lose. To Costa Rica. At Red Bull Arena.
I can hardly wait.