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The best place in the world to watch the USMNT game was Grant Park

The scene in Chicago's Grant Park was stunning for the US-Portugal watch party.

SB Nation's 2014 World Cup Bracket'

As the clock hit 94 minutes, thousands in the crowd at Chicago's Grant Park began to take out their phones, hoping to record history and the euphoria of an incredible come-from-behind win over Portugal.

Most in the crowd, including me, probably missed the United States' giveaway and the Portugal run that followed. Most of us were waiting for that final whistle to sound, having nearly made it through the five minutes of stoppage time that led to a collective groan from the tens of thousands of people in attendance.

Then ... well, you know what happened. Silvestre Varela finished off a beautiful cross from Cristiano Ronaldo to take the United States out of the round of 16 and make them sweat out Thursday's game against Germany. It was a buzzkill, a shot to the heart, whatever cliche you want to use.

But I wasn't tasked with writing about the game itself, because I'm no more qualified to tactically analyze this game than any of you reading it. (If you're interested in that, read Kevin McCauley.) No, I was tasked with writing about the atmosphere at the official US Soccer watch party in Chicago.

And although I reminisced on the train ride home that this may be the saddest I've felt about a sporting event since my days following Iowa football as a kid, I'm not going to let a stunning (tie? loss? what is it?) ruin perhaps the greatest sports atmosphere I've ever seen in my life.

★★★

We knew we were approaching something special when we turned the corner into Grant Park. In the foreground were thousands of red-white-and-blue-clad people walking toward a 33-foot TV screen on which you could vaguely make out the Algeria-South Korea game.

It was 3:30 p.m., an hour-and-a-half before US-Portugal game started, but the streets were lined with Stars and Stripes supporters. Some wore Uncle Sam hats, some wore scarves, some ran down the street with flags waving and some sported Dream Team jerseys.

My friends and I had gotten up early to make an All-American breakfast — loads of bacon, sausage, pancakes and hashbrowns, with some Miller, Summer Shandy and Bacardi to wash it down — before taking the short train ride downtown. We'd been planning on making the trip to Grant Park since the previous Monday, when the live look-ins from the US-Ghana game showed what US Soccer estimated as 10,000 strong cheering on from the Windy City.

It was evident from the start that the crowd for the US-Portugal game would be much bigger. Despite showing up what seemed like incredibly early, we arrived to a crowd that was already lively and had filled up half the designated standing area. Inside the fence — a huge swath of Balbo Road in the middle of Grant Park — the breadth of backgrounds was striking. I had expected thousands of drunk 20-year-olds, who were certainly out in full force, but they were joined by families picnicking and young couples who attended solely to watch the game with tens of thousands of their closest friends.

We pushed our way up as far as we could go before settling on a spot probably 50 yards or so from the screen. While we got settled, the masses poured in behind us. With about an hour until gametime, the fences were filled as far as we could see.

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As kickoff drew closer, the crowd pushed toward the front, and more and more people streamed through the gate. At 4:40, a Chicago radio host (who, annoyingly, kept screwing up the "I Believe" chant) announced to the crowd that the gates were closed, with an estimated 20,000 fans inside.

But the rejected fans didn't turn back and head home. Instead, they sprawled around the side of the fenced in area, hoping to catch a glimpse of the 33-foot screen and share in the emotional roller coaster ride with the thousands inside the official watch party.

★★★

As the game began, two things became clear:

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  • This was probably going to be the largest US crowd to ever watch a soccer game on TV. (Sorry for the crooked picture but damn!)
  • America HATES Cristiano Ronaldo

I've watched a lot of sports, but I've never seen that much vitriol focused on one specific player. Like, Auburn might hate Alabama, but they don't boo every time AJ McCarron touches the ball. The day started off with a loud "Fuck Ronaldo" chant, and it got worse from there. Literally every time Ronaldo was shown on TV, someone different was flipping the bird — sometimes hundreds at a time (and that only counts the people standing in front of me). It was pretty incredible how much more enjoyment the crowd got out of every Ronaldo missed shot than it did every other Portugal missed shot.

But aside from the Ronaldo hate, the scene was goosebumps-inducing. The crowd sang a booming rendition of the national anthem, and when the first whistle blew, a consistent level of conversation turned to anxiety. And five minutes in, once Portugal scored its first goal, there was a sense that maybe we'd gotten ahead of ourselves — maybe even a draw against Portugal would be a lot tougher than we'd thought.

I've watched a lot of sports, but I've never seen that much vitriol focused on one player. The day started off with a loud "Fuck Ronaldo" chant, and it got worse from there.

To my pleasant surprise, the group was far less "hot takey" than I figured it would be. There was a mix of knowledgeable soccer fans and people who just love to cheer for America, but everyone seemed to understand, generally, what the strategy was and what the US team needed to do better. Not once did someone scream that we need Landon Donovan, and not once did someone say something about soccer being stupid anyways.

But that doesn't mean anyone was satisfied, and as the half came to a close, the anxiety grew. There was so much energy in the crowd, but any "USA" chants faded with the nerves. Outside the fence, the crowd reached its closest level to soccer hooliganism. Some fans climbed trees and ripped the branches down, while others climbed the fence and shook it so much that they had to take the US Soccer banners down to give everyone a better look.

As the second half began, the mood shifted. There was less of a murmur and more nervous chatter as the reality of what a loss might mean sunk in. Just as people started to complain that it might not be our day — after a Michael Bradley shot that should have gone in was cleared off the line by Ricardo Costa — Jermaine Jones shocked the world.

The scene was indescribable. In most sporting events, people seem to have some plan in wild celebrations — look for a high-five or hug their neighbor, for example. It seemed that nobody in the crowd at Grant Park really knew what to do, and for a solid minute, fans jumped around, hugging and bouncing off anyone in sight. For me, the celebration was a blur.

Minutes later, when Clint Dempsey scored to give the US the lead, we had a nice repeat of what had come before. This time, people had done a better job figuring out hugging, rather than just falling over themselves. But still, the euphoria lacked proper description.

The glee continued into the last stages of the game, as every clearance and every intercepted pass drew applause. Nobody in the crowd thought the game was over, even as it entered stoppage time, but as the game progressed, the feeling that the US could, somehow, advance to the knockout round after its second game started to pass through the crowd.

Issues that had plagued the team in previous games seemed to finally be going their way: the defenders were diving for headers and disrupting crosses, the midfielders were keeping possession and the forwards were stalling with the best of them.

As the official showed five minutes of stoppage time, the crowd groaned, but somewhat optimistically. There was reason for optimism, after all, since the team had owned the second half and it appeared Cristiano — he of middle finger fame — Ronaldo would be sent home in disappointment. The phones came out, the fans started to pack up and the "USA" chants could barely be held back any longer.

Then ... heartbreak.

It was a stunning scene, one that nature seemed determined to reinforce. A thick fog rolled in from the south, blanketing the city in a layer of gloom. There were some expletives and some people hoping out loud for a bad offsides call that would never come. A minute later, the game ended, and Chicagoans walked away dejected. It was out of a movie almost, as the masses tried to process what happened on the foggy lakefront.

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At first, I didn't know what to think. An optimist could hang his hat on the fact that US soccer fans are dejected over a tie against the fourth-ranked team in the world — a sign of progress, if you will. But there were no words of optimism as the crowd filed out toward the hazy skyline.

As we walked back, my friends and I went through the tiebreaker scenarios, lamenting the fact that Ghana might knock the US out once again. Eventually, one of my friends gave up: "Let's just win the group," he said.

Damn straight. And I'm sure that when we do, Grant Park is going to be rocking harder than anywhere else in the world. The contrarians might doubt it, but there was one reason for optimism on Sunday: on one afternoon, Chicago, Illinois was the best place in the world to watch a soccer game. The rest of the world might think we don't care about soccer, but it's clear now that they best stop treadin.