I woke up to an email from my football-mad dad in England this morning. He'd stayed up to watch the Belgium vs. USA match, and his reflection mirrored that of millions around the world:
"If only England had the same passion and commitment that the USA showed with limited resources," he wrote.
It was a theme apparent all over social media, as planet football joined in hailing this beloved—after last night, we can justifiably call them that—United States team for what they've given to the world's game in Brazil this summer.
This, as we all know, is a team that has overachieved on its talent. Moreover, it's a team that has played with pride and without fear, as so many teams on the biggest stage fail to do.
Many echoed my dad's comparison with England. Yet again, we watched our Three Lions slip meekly from view, underwhelming against Uruguay and Italy and with our so-called stars dim under the hot sun.
There's a sickening emptiness in that kind of showing—a pit in the stomach at what could have been. It breeds a bitterness among fans that elicits anger and apathy. "I'm done with England," you'll hear fans say every four years.
You won't hear that said about the U.S. team this summer. In glorious defeat against Belgium, a nation was left heartbroken, but it will wake up this morning knowing its football team won hearts and minds far beyond the population for which they so proudly fought.
"We dreamed and again we fell short of our dream," said the preposterously heroic Tim Howard, per New York's Daily News. "Gosh, we were right there. We nearly had it. But this is a young group and we’ll be back for more."
Howard's performance in Salvador was the stuff of comic-book fantasy. It prompted a wonderment that's gone viral, and as a result, he will go down in World Cup history as possibly the greatest goalkeeping virtuoso the tournament has ever seen.
"That's my job. That's what I signed up for," Howard said during his postgame interview.
It was a sentence that summed up the U.S. effort this summer. Jurgen Klinsmann's squad suffered no prima donnas, no distracting agenda, and there was never a sense any of its players began to believe their own hype.
They were—and transparently so—a unit of togetherness throughout. That kind of environment is admirable to the outside and hugely beneficial on the inside. It's that kind of environment that extracts every ounce of the talent available by giving strength and belief to everyone involved.
Howard is the obvious example, but there are others. Picture John Brooks' heroics against Ghana, or DeAndre Yedlin scampering down the right flank like Cafu in his prime. Think back to Clint Dempsey's cool finish that started it all in the opening minutes vs. Ghana, or Jermaine Jones' lightning bolt that struck Portugal, or Julian Green's moment against Belgium.
What joy to see players summit their potential, or hint at the future to come. Isn't that what World Cups are for, after all?
Too often the world's best players fall flat on the biggest stage, weighed down by pressure, their expression muted. Too often the world's best teams play with a nervous trepidation when things matter most.
Team USA showed nothing of the sort. They stood up to the Group of Death, went boldly into their meeting with Belgium and will go home having won the hearts and minds of everybody who watched them play.
America still has a long way to go when it comes to global P.R., but this U.S. team did a mighty fine job of lifting the flag for the right reasons at the World Cup.
"We left it all out there, but we lost to really good team," an emotional Howard said Tuesday night.
There can be no doubting that sentiment. And there can be nothing but admiration for a team that has played to the spirit of Brazil and done its nation proud at the World Cup.
The U.S. fans have played their part, too, traveling in thousands to Brazil and gathering in huge numbers to cheer on their team back home. Don't tell me this is a nation that doesn't "get" soccer, ever again.
Onwards and upwards, USA. Onwards and upwards.