Almost Heroes

Bryan GoldbergSenior Writer IJune 19, 2006

IconKaiserslautern is the smallest city to host a World Cup soccer match. In fact, it's not even big enough to call a city. Kaiserslautern is a town. As for the venue — Fritz Walter Stadium — it stands as a sharp comparison to the grand, state-of-the-art coliseums that have been built in Munich , Gelsenkirchen , and just about every other Cup location. But for the relatively tiny crowd of 45,000 who attended the United States v. Italy match, some solid history was made, and some enormous history was almost made.
Let's begin with some pre-game wisdom: a tie against Italy is tantamount to a win. That's not just for the United States , but any team. Those unlucky enough to meet Italy in the first round of a tournament should always be content with a respectable draw. Another important consideration is that the United States flew to Germany in order to garner respect. One does not need to spend much time in Europe to realize how little appreciation the rest of the world has for US Soccer. It's the only institution viewed with less regard than our Executive Branch. The previous World Cup in Japan and Korea helped the US case, but worldwide respect takes consistency. The United States had no chance to win this tournament, but they had a huge opportunity to win long-term respect.
The draw against Italy gave America both. Our men played tough. Their defense held. Kasey Keller proved to be the Man of the Match in goal. They played to win — they nearly won. A quick Google News search of international papers serves as easy proof. No news source had a harsh word for the United States , despite their inability to score a genuine goal or their lack of discipline. Their win earned them some much deserved respect forever and from this day forward. They played that hard.
And as for their tourney prospects? They put themselves in a position where a win against Ghana can earn them a spot in the next round. A massive win against Ghana can guarantee them a spot in the next round. And if there was one certainty coming into this tournament, it was this: a win against Ghana has always been a necessary ingredient in the US tournament plan.
Despite the winning nature of a draw, the fans in Kaiserslautern couldn't help but feel cheated. After all, even the most astute of viewers believed for a genuine moment that their team had taken the lead in the 70th minute. For one split second, everyone with a star-spangled banner around their body thought they had gained the lead. The victory was not to be. And as the fans poured out of Fritz Walter Stadium, a task that took most spectators an entire hour, they all tempered their joy with a dose of what if?
What if the United States had won? For starters, they would have almost certainly gone through to the next round — a loss to Brazil would still await them, but they would have gone through. Such an outcome would almost guarantee them seeding in the next tournament, a snowball effect that can take any team to the next level on the world stage. They would have shocked the world, too, for what that's worth. It would have been the biggest upset of the tournament — the France v. Senegal of this year's tournament. People would have talked about it in every language known to man for the next 48 hours that followed.

But it didn't happen. The goal was called off, and the draw was maintained. Progress was made, a little history was made, but there was no miracle. Herb Brooks can continue to rest in peace. This tie won't be talked about 26 years from now. But it will rest on hundreds of millions of people's minds just a little bit. If America can beat Ghana on Thursday, then our tournament progress may establish something resembling a legacy. And that should leave every US Soccer fan thinking, "I'll take it!"