SALVADOR, Brazil -- It seems like yesterday rather than four years ago and an ocean away. On that night in South Africa, the U.S. needed a goal to stay alive -- needed a goal just to advance out of the group stage of the 2010 World Cup -- and there was so little time left. Algeria pressed forward, pushing as many as seven men up, and the U.S. bent back, looking for any chance to counter.
It's hard to describe what the stadium felt like in those moments. The Americans in the crowd had gone to an unusual place for Americans, past the far edge of their usual spectrum of expectation. At one end there's certainty, the confidence of knowing. Closer to the middle there's belief and then faith. Then comes optimism, and then comes hope. And then comes how it felt in the dying seconds of that unforgettable night. That's where the Americans were back then.
Heading into Tuesday's knockout match against Belgium, the U.S. and its supporters are, for the moment, at a far different station. Before the thinning armies of American fans had even dragged themselves into sunny Salvador, many were already making plans for their next stop: Brasilia, where, depending on your own position on that spectrum, the U.S. either will play its quarterfinal, or it would play its quarterfinal, if only.
On the face of things, buying plane tickets seems a little brave. The Americans did well to survive the Group of Death, but they advanced on a loss, and their best game had seen them earn only a tie. The Belgians won all three of their group-stage matches -- yes, against a far weaker draw -- allowing only a single goal. And yet it's the Belgians who now seem to be trading places with the Americans, edging toward doubt's end.
That's partly because Jozy Altidore might play, and Vincent Kompany might not.
It's more because in the long, slow build to this tournament, the poor Belgians were burdened with the worst mantle in sports: dark horse.
U.S. vs. Belgium: Tuesday, 4 ET (ESPN and WatchESPN)
- Chris Jones: U.S. belief grows
- Doug McIntyre: Klinsmann pulls out the tricks
- Jeff Carlisle: Altidore's role vs. Belgium
- Jeff Carlisle: Klinsmann justified so far
- Roger Bennett: How far can the U.S. go?
- Doug McIntyre: Beasley's U.S. rebirth
- Read: Tim Howard assesses Belgian attack
The problem with dark horses is that they are saddled with all of destiny's pressure with half of the justification. They are not favorites, because they are not the best and never have been. In fact, there are several better bets. Dark horses are just good enough to make someone, somewhere, wonder. And then that wondering gets whipped by some mysterious consensus into something far closer to certainty than it has any right to be. For dark horses, that's the hole in the track. Even mighty Brazil seems doomed by the load that they're carrying. Dark horses have even harsher luck. They are forced to bear the same weight but on weaker legs.
The gift and curse of games is that none of us can truly know how they will finish. This World Cup has proved once again that certainty is only an illusion. Which means that sometimes the longest shots come through, like on that magical night in South Africa. At some desperate point, past which there no longer seems even a slim chance for success, what you feel is a collective letting go. That's the release that allows miracles to happen.
The Americans might soon find themselves returning to that distant edge. They might need Tim Howard to make another save and another long throw to this year's version of Landon Donovan. They more than likely will, if history and geography and their lessons hold. How much has really changed in four years? What difference is an ocean?
But right now in Salvador, it doesn't feel like anyone's letting go just yet. Right now, it feels better than hope, and it feels better than optimism, and it feels better than faith. It feels like belief, and for a team that shouldn't win, there's no better feeling in the world.