The day of the 2014 World Cup finals draw, I sent a text to a very good friend to say I liked Group H for the U.S. He replied with a terse “WHAT!?” I clarified, “I like group H for the USMNT.” He said, “Why? I don’t get it.”
My optimism was founded on familiarity. I said by the time the World Cup starts, the USMNT will have played three of the four teams in group H within the cycle (Belgium, Russia & South Korea) and of course a recent history with Algeria (see Landon Donovan 2010 World Cup). So not only would the MNT be battle-tested if it emerged from the most rugged group in Brazil, but they would also have a chance to do some damage in the knockout stages.
On a late May 2013 night in Cleveland, Ohio, the MNT lost to a talented Belgium squad, a handful of things stick out in my mind when I am thinking back to that game.
First, that was the last U.S. loss for 13 straight games, now a team record. Also, DaMarcus Beasley earned his 100th cap, only the 13th player in 101 years of US Soccer to accomplish the milestone feat.
It also proved to be a reminder how much other pro athletes, especially NFL players, love the USMNT. The Cleveland Browns, in the midst off their off-season and OTAs, hung around training that week and were in attendance that night for the game.
When Kevin Mirallas scored the opener and celebrated by doing his take on Americana and home-runs, all I could do was hold back a group of Browns, including veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson (now with the Indianapolis Colts) from running on the field to confront the Everton player about showing ‘proper’ respect and to make sure the U.S. team knew they had their back.
Fast forward nearly seven months from the draw and a year since the last meeting with Belgium, the U.S. has a great chance at its second quarterfinal berth at a World Cup finals since 2002 with only the vibrant Belgians in their way.
Of course, the 2002 World Cup finals were magical for Belgium as well as it was the last time they’ve advanced out of the group stages at a World Cup. One of my all-time favorite World Cup memories is watching Brazil dispatch of Belgium in Kobe, Japan in the round of 16 that year. Marc Wilmots was in the starting XI that day and now is coaching the Belgians. It all comes full circle.
U.S. head coach Jürgen Klinsmann has urged the traveling party (family and friends) with the team in Brazil to dream big and book their flights for after the World Cup final. With a win in Salvador, the Americans’ big dreams will be one-step closer to reality. His optimism is also founded on familiarity.
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