The Throw-In: America’s fantasy ride to the big game

The following events are not true – but they could have been. And in another world, they should have been. Let’s stretch the What-If game as far as it possibly can go.

If this is a fantasy, I don’t want to wake up. The World Cup final is almost here, and the US National Team – yes, the USA – has defied the odds, shut up the haters and done the impossible.

And it’s a dream matchup with Spain, an opponent the Americans know all too well. How did this happen? How on earth could a team that lived and died and then came back to life in seemingly every game become the first non-European or South American team ever to reach the final of the Greatest Show in Sports?

Some will argue it was a kind draw for the US. Some will argue the pieces fell into place when Uruguay and Ghana – not Mexico, France, Germany or Serbia – lined up as the Americans’ opponents in the knockout stage.

Maybe that’s true. But was it luck when Herculez Gomez scored an improbable extra-time equalizer in the 118th minute against Ghana in the Round of 16? Was it an accident that Bob Bradley saw fit to include on his roster the former MLSer-turned-Mexican-league star, who scored four of his 10 clutch goals as a substitute for Puebla last season?

Was it pure chance that Tim Howard atoned in the penalty shootout in that game, stuffing would-be extra-time hero Asamoah Gyan, as well as veterans Stephen Appiah and Sulley Muntari?

And then, once again, when they needed him most, was it pure coincidence that the most deadly American ever from the spot, Landon Donovan, stepped up and delivered the US into the quarterfinals?

That made four straight improbable victories for the Cardiac Kids. The luck had to run out sooner or later, right? Uruguay were seemingly an easier quarterfinal opponent than Argentina or Germany, or one of the other giants the US could have faced.

Something about that game at Soccer City seemed very, very different. Maybe it was the fact that José Francisco Torres finally found the perfect side to start against. The diminutive midfielder did exactly what American fans had dreamed of him, passing his way around the Uruguayans and delivering pinpoint passes.

And that led to an American breakthrough: scoring first in the first half for the first time at this World Cup. It was all thanks to Torres. Just before the break, the Pachuca man danced through Diego Pérez, who had, until that point, been a rock for La Celeste.

Torres’ cutback put the Uruguayan central midfielder on his heels, and the quick pass found Michael Bradley for a long-range bullet just before the stroke of halftime. It was a genius move by Torres, who had taken so much flak for his wide-eyed jitters against Slovenia.

“He did great out there,” Bradley said of his partner in midfield. “All those experts, let them talk. What do they have to say now?”

But after Diego Forlán’s brillant free kick to equalize in the second half, the exhausted Americans headed to extra time for a second straight game. And this time, fate truly smiled upon them.

Sure, maybe Luis Suárez’s blatant goal-line handball on Edson Buddle’s header as time expired was another amazing break. But when Donovan stepped up again and buried his spot kick without any hesitation, you really got the sense that destiny was stepping in: This US team was here to do something special – like head back to the semifinals of a World Cup for the first time in 80 years.

So special, in fact, that in the postgame press conference, a bizarre expression came over Bob Bradley’s face as he spoke. Something that looked oddly like ... a grin.

“Again, you want players to understand the gravity of the moment,” Bradley said. “In certain moments, you want to adjust to situations in the game and, again, it’s a special thing. Again.”

Speaking of again, it just seemed right that the US faced the Netherlands in the semis, and a starting Oranje lineup that was nearly identical to the one they faced in a friendly in Amsterdam in March, a 2-1 loss.

“We remembered that one,” said Stuart Holden, who started that game and got his first start in the semis. “We weren’t about to let that happen again.”

No one questioned Bradley’s approach this time, coming out in the same tight setup as the US did against Spain in last summer’s Confederations Cup. And once again, it paid off.

“Credit to them,” said Dutch star Wesley Sneijder, whose mis-cleared header led to the counterattack that ended in Holden’s goal. “It just slipped through from my bald head and it was a horrible feeling."

It was just a 1-0 win, but it was, by far, the most momentous ever in US National Team history. No American team has ever gone a run like this. And soccer – yes, soccer – is the lead item on every newscast, nightly talk show and news magazine show. First Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, now Chelsea Handler and The View.

And ratings have been unreal, with the win over the Dutch approaching 100 million viewers.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president of content. “This is nearly as much as Super Bowl XLIV. LeBron James just called and told us he’s pushing his primetime special to next week because he doesn't want to take attention away from the final.”

Let’s not mince words: This has been the most wildly successful thing ever to happen to soccer in America. Kobe Bryant is already negotiating pre-contracts for his daughters to play in WPS. Chad Ochocinco has arranged a tryout with the New York Red Bulls. Kids everywhere have latched on to Gatorade’s new “Be Like Jozy” campaign.

But now it all comes down to this: Sunday’s final at Soccer City against the mighty Furia Roja.

“We’re ready this time,” said Spain striker Fernando Torres. “I’d bet my Liverpool future on it.”

Live the dream, America.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.

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