AP Images

It can be easy to put too much pressure on any U.S. soccer team during international competitions, but this particular team at this particular time in the history of the sport in this country—with this particular coach at the helm of the entire program—had as much pressure as any U.S. soccer team in history.

And then came the World Cup draw. American soccer fans were convinced the team had been placed in the Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal ranked as two of the top five teams in the world and Ghana being the United States' personal World Cup executioner in each of the last two tournaments.

For the United States, the group looked like imminent death, but as the tournament has played out over the first nine days, preconceived notions about life and death in a World Cup are proving to be different from reality.

Someone go tell England that Group D wasn't the toughest. Go tell Spain Group B wasn't a more difficult lot.

Winslow Townson/USA Today

"Ronaldo plus 10." That's the common knock on the Portuguese side in major competitions, and it's part of the reason why the country that boasts the best player on the planet over the last two years has never been seen as a legitimate contender to win the 2014 World Cup.

One game in, and suddenly a loss in either of the next two matches could see Portugal fail to even make the knockout round. Cristiano Ronaldo is going to do everything in his power to make sure that does not happen, and it's up to the United States to find a way to stop him. (If you thought watching the U.S. stop Ghana was gut-wrenching, just wait for Sunday.)

In truth, Portugal is much more than just Ronaldo, but with the suspension of Pepe after a mindless headbutt on Thomas Mueller and the injuries to Fabio Coentrao and Hugo Almeida, they are much less than they should be heading into a World Cup matchup with the United States. Having said that, Ronaldo plus any 10 still has Ronaldo.

"For us it's a great start, a very difficult start against a great Ghana team and now we have to work harder to show Portugal who we are," Jurgen Klinsmann told the media after his first World Cup win as U.S. soccer manager. "This is a very dangerous game, more dangerous than before because you get that 4-0 result from Germany, now you're going to come into Manaus pretty angry.

Mark J. Rebllas/USA Today

In the closing moments of the thrilling, heart-pumping and gut-wrenching 2-1 victory over Ghana, Ian Darke of ESPN put the performance of the United States ever-so eloquently.

"There are some heroes out there," Darke stated, "in red shirts tonight."

Indeed there were heroes, some as unlikely as one might possibly imagine.

John Brooks, installed at halftime by Jurgen Klinsmann after an injury to starting center back Matt Besler necessitated the change, scored the game-winning goal off a set-piece header in the 86th minute, helping the United States survive an impossible test put forth by Ghana, the elements and the gods of the game.

Getty Images

For the diehards around the world, there is nothing better than the start of a World Cup. Four years of work, dedication, political wrangling and hastily constructed stadia are finally being put to use on the field in Brazil. Nothing matters more.

To casual fans of the game—and traditional big-event television watchers in America—the World Cup is too often something to admire from afar, tuning in when the United States plays and catching a few matches that involve power nations like Brazil, Italy or Argentina.

For the diehards who watched every minute of the first 11 World Cup matches, we witnessed what might go down as the best opening weekend in the event's storied history.

You want big stars? The first weekend had them.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

When asked about the inexperience of the U.S. men's national soccer team and how it could be the defining story of the 2014 World Cup for his side, Tim Howard tried to spin it into a positive.

"Experience is a big thing," the U.S. goalkeeper told a small group of reporters after the Turkey friendly. "Experience also has baggage. So we don't have that baggage."

Only they do. At least, some of them do. There has been so much made about the U.S. national team's lack of experience and how it will work against it in Brazil that many of us—I am as guilty as anyone on this front—have brushed aside the overwhelming experience the team does have.

Howard just collected his 100th international cap in the buildup to Brazil, making him the third player on this roster with triple-digit appearances for the national team, joining Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley in that esteemed class.

AP Images

If you've watched a U.S. men's national team soccer match over the last dozen or so years, you surely know the popular refrain coming from the loyal travelers in the stands of every game around the world. Say it with me now, folks.

I. "I."

I believe. "I believe."

I believe that we will win. "I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win."

(Insert record player screeching sound here.)

Wait a minute. No I don't. I don't believe that we will win. And neither do you.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

"Dad, why don't you wear your U.S. soccer shirt to the game this weekend," my seven-year-old soccer-playing daughter asked as I prepared to cover the United States men's national team in a warm-up match for the 2014 World Cup.

"Well, because it's unprofessional," I replied. "You aren't supposed to root for the team you are covering."

"Why not," she answered. "Don't you love America?"

It's hard in our profession to put rooting interests aside, but it's even harder to keep covering a team and rooting for it separate when that team represents America and everything you have grown up wanting U.S. soccer to be.

Kirby Lee/USA Today

When Taylor Twellman heard how many ties Bob Ley was bringing to Brazil, he laughed.

"Bob says 12 ties?" Twellman asked me while packing for Brazil to cover the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

"I’ve got everything from six bottles of bug spray, malaria pills, five suits, probably 25 shirts, 25 ties. I have absolutely no idea what to do."

Beginning with a trip to Jacksonville to call the final tune-up for the U.S. men's national team with fellow broadcaster and world traveler Ian Darke, Twellman will be on the road for 73 consecutive days calling soccer for ESPN.

Getty Images

This is a simple concept—perhaps too simple given the stakes—but for the U.S. soccer team to have any chance to succeed in Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, the best players are going to have play like they are the best players.

It's the age-old logic in sports: If our best are better than your best, we're probably going to beat you.

Yes, tactics matter. Yes, the entire starting XI is important and the three players each manager chooses to substitute on will undoubtedly have a consistent impact on the results of many matches in Brazil.

Yes, everything matters at the World Cup. The length of a blade of grass could change the way a ball moves on a shot that may send shock waves around the world. That's what makes the event so amazing, and that's what makes the stars even more important.

AP Images

Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are two of the most important cogs in the vast ESPN machine. If it weren't for the success of Pardon the Interruption—ESPN's signature debate show that has truly been responsible for a shift in the way sports are covered on television—a lot of us wouldn't be doing what we are doing.

I, personally, may not be where I am were it not for the help and direction from Kornheiser and Wilbon. So I say this with all due respect and decorum.

Wilbon needs to get the hell out of here. If he was serious with his ridiculously jingoistic rant about Jurgen Klinsmann on PTI on Thursday, Wilbon needs to get out of here with that nonsense:

The full quote (via 101 Great Goals) can be heard at the 10-minute mark of yesterday's show.