Watching that Donovan goal has not gotten old, and I don't suspect it will before Saturday, when we meet Ghana in the round-of-16. It was your quintessential "good" soccer match: an surreal amount of tension building up, countless chances gone begging, the deserving winners on the ropes, and salvation at the last moment.
Nobody has really talked about this (because why should they?), but if Donovan hadn't scored, that game would have been one of the most unfair, unlucky, and heartbreaking losses I can remember. Unfair because Dempsey's goal was disallowed. Unlucky because we had scads of chances that were separately blown in new and unique ways. And heartbreaking because US Soccer was invested in this World Cup after the disaster in Germany, and lasting at least to the knockout stage was essential to our (battered) self-esteem.
And now we're there. Wild! I may be about to jinx the team and the country, but I don't care, I'm saying it anyway: Ghana will not beat us. They haven't scored a goal from offensive maneuvering in group play; two penaltiy conversions (at least one of them dubious, if I remember correctly) is the sum total of their output.
My Ghanese co-worker, who knows more about African soccer than I will ever learn about any subject, says the deficiency is no fluke. The Ghana defense is strong, but the US attack is run-and-gun anyway. It's not like we were going to pass the ball around on our half for ages looking for a slim opening the way Holland or Brazil or Spain might. We couldn't even do that if we wanted to- the style and skill is missing. It's all long passes and crosses and desperate charges. That's basically the antidote to "good" defense. If you try to get lucky enough, it might happen. Also, we never stop running. Without our excellent conditioning, yesterday's goal would not have happened. There is no pause button, and certainly no quit, in Team USA.
Do you believe in national character? As in, psychological traits that emerge within a country, despite individual variance? The book I keep talking about here, "Brilliant Orange," is written by an Englishman and based on the theory that something in the Dutch mindset or ethos or whatever makes them simultaneously original and defeatist. They produce brilliant, unique teams who lack toughness and the capacity to win in a grinding fashion. So they lose World Cups, and Euro Cups, despite the talent. The Germans, on the other hand, equally skilled, develop more utilitarian systems and breed the kind of unblinking commitment among their players that's allowed them to win three World Cups.
This stuff is theoretical and will only ever be partly true, but I think it's too compelling to dismiss as mere stereotypes. And if we're going to explore this thread within our own borders, you have to say that the American team demonstrates a kind of stubborn resolve and a weird flair for withstanding hardship and earning good results despite early setbacks. In a broad sense, this kind of thing has defined our history. The Revolutionary War started poorly. The Civil War nearly broke apart the union. The Great Depression sent the country into an economic and spiritual spiral. But as a young nation gifted with a lot of luck, a dogged optimism ended up prevailing. We've been at our strongest when faced with long odds and counted out.
Granted, today's America is something wildly different. We're once again stuck in the mire, but it's impossible to ignore that the quality of our citizenry has declined. And I'm not even talking about morality; our history is full of bad guys, and there are probably the same amount now as ever. But there are new qualities that hamper our recovery.
A sense of entitlement is one. Our predecessors weren't burdened by this for the simple fact that they weren't entitled to anything. Opportunities had to be manufactured, futures had to be forged. Laziness is another. Obesity and a dependence on easy technology have softened the nation's underbelly. That wasn't possible before we became a place where even our poor are fat. Last, community spirit has dwindled. Even when the people do come together, as with Obama's election, the enthusiasm and commitment does not endure. Or, when it does, as with the Tea Party movement, the purpose seems a bit muddled, and based on vague individual anger rather than a positive energy of change.
But let's look at US Soccer. They bear a strong resemblance to the hard-nosed qualities of earlier America. There's nothing entitled about them. Soccer is a second sister in this country, and most of the national players are not household names. They aren't heroes. They're mocked far more than they're idolized. Nobody expects greatness from their ranks. They certainly aren't lazy. When you're trying to forge an identity, and its attendant respect, there's no room for arrogance or sloth. And the community spirit burns bright. Soccer fans in America may have smaller numbers than their counterparts, but they're no less ardent.
In fact, it may be the opposite. How many times has a soccer fan tried to convince you of the game's merits? They wear their fandom proudly, and they try to spread their love of the sport like a Christian missionary among the savages. This doesn't happen in other sports because it doesn't have to. I don't need to go far to find a thousand Yankee fans, or New York Giants fans, or Duke basketball fans. Those structures are already in place.
In that sense, soccer in the United States can be seen as a modern metaphor for the freezing soldiers in Valley Forge, or the migrant workers in the Dust Bowl, or Lincoln's unwavering belief in an undivided America. It's a very American attitude- things will turn out well after a period of suffering. Maybe it's a symptom of youth, feeling young and chosen. Not entitled, but blessed. Involved in your own story of redemption. Rejecting the stoic idea of fate. And, coupled with that rejection, an enduring sense of responsibility for the future.
In that light, Donovan's goal should not have come as a surprise. Ditto for the comeback against England and Slovenia. We're witnessing a distant reflection of a resilient nation with a tradition of winning. And unlike the bulk of their countrymen, our players exist without the benefit of a rich and powerful history. They're throwbacks to the early Americans, gauranteed nothing, toiling anyway. So resonant, in fact, that they're impossible not to love.