NATAL, Brazil – They’d waited four years for this moment. Exactly 1,451 days to mull over the one that got away. And now, 4,331 miles from where Ghana broke the Americans’ hearts in 2010 in South Africa, at Brazil’s closest point to Africa, was a chance at redemption.
Flight after flight full of red, white and blue touched down at Augusto Severo International Airport, and once the weather relented on Sunday after nearly three days of record-setting downpours, they packed the beaches, the bars, anywhere where caipirinhas and lagers were in steady supply.
For two days, the beaches and iconic sand dunes in this equatorial paradise crawled with Americans of all creeds, and English, not Portuguese, was the language du jour.
If it was red, white and blue, they brought it. If there was a place to gather, to chant, to revel in Jurgen Klinsmann’s boys, they went. There were more bomb pops in Natal than a Fourth of July in Nacogdoches.
Six hours before gametime, as Portugal and Germany kicked off in Salvador, the gathering American horde began to build momentum. They packed bars and restaurants along the pristine beaches, all eyes on Cristiano Ronaldo as Germany delivered a beatdown that both terrified US fans and gave them hope that Portugal were primed for a letdown.
And when the final whistle blew on a 4-0 victory that signified Germany’s intent, they steamed out into the humid tropical air, hailing cabs and buses, hopping in rental cars, streaming down sidewalks, anything that would get them from point A to Arena das Dunas.
Just blocks from the stadium, hundreds of American Outlaws, unaffiliated US fans and even the odd curious local massed at the corner of Avenida Salgado Filho and Miguel Castros at Rodizio de Pizzas. As the beer flowed and the numbers grew well into the hundreds, an oft-repeated rallying cry left no doubt that they believed the US would surely win.
Little did they know just how prophetic that rote call-and-response would actually be.
The Justice League was there: Superman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Batman and Flash. They sweated profusely under their polyester costumes. So was the cavalry, a grown man decked out from head to toe in USMNT-tinged military regalia. Flags were repurposed as capes. Tank tops were dyed with the stars and stripes or not worn at all.
Passing buses, filled to the gills with men, women and children going about their daily lives, gawked at the spectacle. Tanned arms and hands emerged from the open windows, waving and flashing thumbs-up signs, cues the mob took as approval, a reason to roar back in appreciation.
Then they marched. Two blocks south and across the freeway, with no premonition of the emotional roller-coaster that awaited them, approaching destiny in a hopeful haze of cheap beer and patriotic bliss.
Depending on whom you believe, up to 20,000 American supporters packed the stands of Arena das Dunas on Monday night. It's certainly plausible, but it's no more than a number. No matter how many US fans actually went through the turnstiles, nobody could have guessed how the drama, so long in the making, would eventually play out.
US fans took up the "U-S-A" chant as soon as Clint Dempsey’s steely glare was visible in the pregame tunnel. They went a step further 30 seconds into the match, when their wildest dreams came true, the ball caroming in off the far post and in after their captain tried something audacious and actually pulled it off.
I believe that we will win…
I believe that we will win…
I believe that we will win…
The chills were immediate, the noise deafening, the moment and the reaction a snapshot into the souls of Dempsey, Klinsmann and the thousands there to support the American cause.
They believed, even if that belief was still to be tested.
First, Jozy Altidore crumpled to the ground, tears in his eyes as a hamstring strain ended his game and perhaps his tournament. Dempsey was the next victim, John Boye’s flailing leg bloodying and almost certainly breaking his nose. By halftime, Matt Besler was a casualty as well.
Ghana, their colorful fans pounding drums and dancing in the stands, sent wave after wave toward the American goal. In the stands and on the field, the US held on for dear life, white knuckles evident as Tim Howard did what he does best and Geoff Cameron, Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones threw their bodies at the ball.
And just as it seemed the Americans might sneak out of Arena das Dunas with an ugly, but supremely satisfying, win, Andre Ayew let the air out the stadium, a sense of déjà vu overtaking the crowd as Ghana pressed forward for a winner. Just as quickly, it rushed back in via the head of John Brooks.
Somehow a 21-year-old kid from Berlin, one with a name so American it feels better suited to a spaghetti western star than a soccer player, rose above the crowd to score the winner. Somehow the US held on despite five agonizing minutes of added time.
This time it was the Black Stars falling to their knees. This time the US exchanged bear hugs, blowing kisses to the crowd and parading around with swapped shirts hanging off their shoulders. This time American fans streamed into the steamy night to celebrate history while Vice President Joe Biden congratuated the boys in the locker room.
This time, four years after a quarterfinal spot was cruelly wrested from their grasp, the Americans were, briefly at least, on top of the world. They believed that they would win, and then they went out and did it.