1. Wondolowski almost had it: on the foot, nothing in front of him but the notion of the possibility of the chance appearance of the goalkeeper. In stoppage time, the United States got the ball in the right spot to steal a game from Belgium, advance to the final eight teams in the World Cup, and set that vast crowd of sunburnt Missourians in St. Louis into a beer-soaked levitation of humans too ecstatic to obey the rules of gravity. (You know the people we're talking about: the same crowd they showed in Kansas City before every game, the ones alternating vigorous mass bouncing with screaming "I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN" at the top of their lungs. The on-camera MVPs of the Copa, as far as I'm concerned.) Wondolowski had it, and then didn't, and in the extra period the Belgians would score two goals and eliminate the Americans from the tournament. The noise you should have been making was the last resort of the exhausted and helpless viewer: a sigh.
I believe that
I believe that
2. A sigh, despite all of this going much farther than you thought it could — at least, much further than you thought before it showed up. In the case of Brazil, it took the form of a suave, nattily dressed gentleman with a massive beard and pince-nez, wearing the armor of a nineteenth-century intellectual. He whispered in my ear during matches that yes, despite Bradley kicking the ball with lead feet, and despite the frailty of Jozy Altidore's hamstring, this team had hope. Hope always takes a defined shape in the brain. Once it arrived for me, it took the form of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, the greatest Brazilian novelist, peeking over my shoulder, eyeing the dismal possession stats and shot attempts, and saying quietly: time is an invisible web on which everything can be embroidered. He'd say this, looking out the window, sipping from a cup of coffee, and turning back to nod from time to time and smile. Hope was a Brazilian novelist, and he was saying exactly what I wanted to hear.
3. For instance, he would tell the story about the time Tim Howard saved you. In a thousand alternate universes, he has turned errant taxis away from your path, swatted you away from falling safes, and punched away cannonballs bouncing along the ground to a certain decapitation. Innumerable yous have been saved from an almost infinite variety of grim ends by his puffy white gloves, flashing into the frame at the last second. You never felt the bullet coming; Tim Howard kicked it away. Tim Howard had fifteen, sixteen, maybe seventeen saves against Belgium, and it pales compared to what he's done out there, in other places and other worlds where Tim Howard catches babies falling from windows and swats away killer asteroids with the help of a giant robot exoskeleton and enormous tennis racket.
4. Hope, the guy who looked a lot like the Brazilian novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, continued. This was later, after the United States had lost, and he was pacing the room stroking his beard, and hard in thought telling another story. The story involved a goalkeeper, and to understand the story, you must understand goalkeepers. Tim Howard is a goalkeeper. In any story, that means he is eventually going to lose. It is the position of Camus, of people who work against the envelope of total annihilation with ease.
*Note: Camus got interviewed about his Nobel Prize at a soccer game, by the way, in one of the stranger and more wonderful intersections between soccer and literature ever.
So, the man you've confused for Hope says with a slight Brazilian accent, Tim Howard was crying, and it hurt, but that doesn't matter. Goalies at their best function perfectly in the moment. They remember nothing, and expect no help, and when the end comes it is as relevant as a sum written out at the end of a long, dull equation. The present is the only thing to the keeper, and the play to the ball all that matters. Tim Howard would cry after the match, but there is another quote from Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis that applies here: Tears are not arguments. Tim Howard would agree, the man said, because for a goalie doom may be knocking at the door and adjusting its necktie at all hours, yes. But right behind that door was Tim Howard, who like all goalies would take a one-on-one match against the devil at whatever odds you cared to make for them.
5. And that is how soccer can end: on a sigh. You have to assemble those sighs into something like an order. The United States is out, but not only a ferocious fight. The talent will be deeper in four years from now, even if we have to annex part of Lower Saxony and build an enormous and literal vacuum tube pipeline between the two countries in order to expedite the influx of Ameri-German prospects into the team. Players — Howard, Dempsey, and others — will age out. Others will age in, including Julian Green, last seen spiking the veins of the team with a desperate goal in extra time. He will be 23 in 2018, old enough to scare the daylights out of opposing defenders, yet still in the "have to do some extra bullshit just to rent a car" age spectrum. Klinsmann has another four years to cultivate the roots of a true national talent development system. This team just busted out of group play under nearly impossible conditions, and went out only after 120 minutes of furious work against one of the best sides in the world. After 1950, the United States fell out of the World Cup for forty years. The USMNT as we know it is basically 24 years old, the same age Julian Green will be in Russia. It is trying to pay off a few debts, but it has its own place right now, and is thinking about getting its life together. It's got plans, man. It's got whatever you imagine to be hope.
USA Soccer on the rise
6. If you asked the bearded man called hope who looks a lot like Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis on my couch right now, he would tell you this: Out of the sighs of one generation are kneaded the hopes of the next. If this is your first time around with the United States Men's National Team, you just made the kind of down payment that converts the faithless into zealotry for the rest of your life. You paid with sorrow, the emotion that is the mother of all affection. You saw John Brooks' winning header against Ghana, yes, but the circuit is never complete without the alternating current of loss. Welcome to a world of trying to find beIn Sports on a pirate feed at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight. Welcome to tracking Turkish soccer sites trying to gauge the fitness of a reserve defender who maybe, just maybe, solves our issues in central defense in a few years. Welcome to looking up plane fares to Mexico City, because, yanno, it's just a day or two, and you've got all this PTO just piling up in the work account, and ... they're playing, and they need you. You might need them, too, for a thousand reasons you can't quite articulate.
7. The World Cup is over, and yet there is still this man on my couch. He still looks like the famous Brazilian novelist, and he still seems like something like hope. These things take time, he will say, and you'll think oh: he's right. The last time the United States walked off the field against Ghana, my son could not sit up, much less ask for the remote, turn on an episode of Octonauts, and drill me on the particulars of Imperial ships in Star Wars while I pour him his milk for the morning. My other son didn't even exist. This is how the future is raised: a piece at a time, a day at a time, so slowly and yet so quickly you hardly notice how much closer it's gotten. The ghost of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis has one last quote for the occasion: Tomorrow's sun is on its way — a relentless sun, inscrutable like life. In 1,442 days or so, that sun rises over Moscow and the first game of the 2018 World Cup. Hope and its best hallucinations are welcome to stay on the couch until then.