Kickoff for the group stage game between the United States and Portugal was scheduled for 6 p.m., but I descended into the dark and packed Football Factory at Legends, a bar across the street from the Empire State Building, at 3:30 p.m. to stake out my watch spot for the game. Unlike the times I wandered into the Football Factory over this past Premier League season to watch my beloved Crystal Palace F.C. with the New York Eagles supporters group, there was no elbow room or aisles to easily walk through. Donning Red, White, and Blue, I immersed myself into the flood of other people in the Red, White, and Blue who were standing around, hands holding glasses of beer and eyes affixed on one of the many flat-screen televisions scattered on the walls and support columns. Even though the televisions were displaying the halftime highlights of Algeria versus South Korea, the congregation of American supporters belted out the signature “I BELIEVE” chant twice during the intermission.
Perhaps fittingly, I ended up against the back wall of the building, tucked in behind the bar and next to the kitchen hallway. I only dragged myself out of Connecticut to the Football Factory hours before a workday because Katie, a former Football Factory staff member and Crystal Palace convert, was back on the job for the day. Either way, my spot kept me away from the wilder (read: drunker) crowds and gave me a wall to lean on when I got tired of just standing.
To my left, a group of United States supporters — initially six men and six women before expanding to what-looked-like 20 people — sat around a birthday cake from Carvel. It was Ryan’s birthday; dressed in the current tricolor away jersey for the United States National Team, Ryan’s idea of celebrating his big day was to apparently pin the emotions of the night on 11 American men playing a game of soccer somewhere in the Amazon Rainforest. To be fair, I would have done the same thing if I wasn’t a winter baby.
Amid all the cacophony, the birthday party sang a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” that turned into the “U-S-A” chant at the end. Katie provided a steak knife to cut the cake and black paper plates to lay the slices of cake on, but plastic forks were tough to come by. Appropriately, the guy wearing the Stars and Stripes for a cape saved the day. He found a box of plastic spoons sitting on the cart of clean glasses to my right, took a handful of spoons, presented them to the party, and they happily ate their ice cream birthday cake.
By 5 p.m., Algeria defeated South Korea 4-2 and I got to take in an hour of groups of adults throwing the middle finger at images of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo. Those same groups vocalized their actions with a “Fuck Ronaldo” chant that transitioned to a “Fuck Lalas” chant as smoothly as the ESPN crew member who switched the video from Ronaldo to the red-headed defender from the 1994 U.S. World Cup team.
Come 5:55 p.m., the drinking halted for the only time that night so that the congregants in the Football Factory could sing our opening hymn, The Star Spangled Banner, which finished 10 seconds after the folks in Brazil finished listening to the anthem.
A Church-like hush fell upon the Football Factory just five minutes into the game, after Nani roofed the ball into the net. Complaints about Geoff Cameron’s shanked clearance — many of them laden with expletives — filled the room for a few seconds after everyone processed the replays, and then were drowned out by “I BELIEVE” chants.
The U.S. team believed, too; it showed its resilience with attack after attack on Portugal after conceding the goal. Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones broke up Portuguese attacks, the defense limited the threat of Ronaldo, Tim Howard made the saves when necessary, Clint Dempsey narrowly missed tying the game with a free kick that dove just too late, and Mike Bradley threaded passes to Dempsey and the defensive backs pushing up the wings to flank the captain. The rushes from Fabian Johnson and a vintage DeMarcus Beasley kept me especially amped up. We — the supporters and the players — knew that this team would at least salvage a point by the end of the game.
The breakthrough for the United States finally arrived in the 64th minute thanks to Jones, the best player for the Stars and Stripes so far in the tournament. This was a legitimate screamer — a cleared corner kick somehow found its way to Jones, whose blast from outside the box flew past the mess of outfield players and a frozen Beto, and into the netting of the far post. My mouth was agape after seeing that fly in and I started yelping (well, as loud as I could) when it was apparent that my eyes weren’t deceiving me.
The rest of the bar erupted into a much more raucous cheer and drowned me out. Beer flew and showered the fans and the floor. The sound of shattered glasses and dropped aluminum bottles of Bud Light snuck in among the screaming. People were on top of the tables and each other. This was the euphoria and madness that I imagined was going on among the American fans sweating in the jungle of Manaus, just scaled down and within the confines of a chamber in the concrete jungle of New York.
The Football Factory crowd brought back the “I BELIEVE” chant more often now. The U.S. followed up the goal with a spell of dodgy possession and a few too many defensive bailouts and Ronaldo errors for comfort, but we all still believed.
Then the 81st minute struck. DeAndre Yedlin sent in a cross that bounced around and landed at Graham Zusi’s feet. Zusi, instead of taking the shot, squared it across the goal to Dempsey, who chested it into the net. Argentina had the Hand of god; the United States would have its Chest of god. This was the Hollywood ending for the United States to advance out of the Group of Death and into the knockout stages and we all celebrated like it was over. More beer, more glasses and bottles, and more people flew in the air and onto the floor of the Football Factory. Too many people also turned their buckets for beer into percussion instruments, banging them to accentuate the “I BELIEVE” chants that they sang into stoppage time. If I was going to end up deaf tonight because of this entire ruckus, it was a good way for my ears to go out.
I silently counted up until the end. We survived 90+1, 90+2, 90+3, and we were deep into 90+4. Then Bradley coughed up the ball and Portugal launched a counterattack that supplied the ball to an unmarked Ronaldo, who hit a cross into the box.
I had an “Oh, shit” moment when I saw that cross leave Ronaldo’s foot. The trajectory of the ball looked like a line-drive home run, creating a shallow arch as it flew so quickly into the air before connecting with the head of Varela.
The ball was a bullet into the back of the net and into our sporting hearts. It figures that Ronaldo finally came through in the end. It figures that the goal came off a counterattack that would have made the U.S. teams of old very proud. It figures that it was a diving header by Portugal that would crush our hopes for securing a place in the knockout stage after only two games. It was just 12 years ago that Brian McBride provided my first moment of real joy as a fan of the United States National Team — a diving header against Portugal in the first group stage game of the 2002 World Cup.
The fans in the Football Factory were more vocally upset with the goal this time around, cursing Ronaldo. The status updates from Facebook friends swung from happiness over Dempsey’s goal to sadness and frustration with Portugal’s equalizer. (Hey, guys, sign up for Twitter so you can provide live reaction to this stuff in a more acceptable medium.) Then a brief silence took over the Football Factory when the final whistle was blown, before we all paid our tabs and went home, still in a bit of shock over what happened. Unfortunately for one guy, his shock exponentially increased when he slipped and fell on the puddles of beer on the floor as he tried leaving.
As frustrating as it was to see automatic qualification for the Round of 16 slip like that, it was heartening to see so many people on Facebook and at the Football Factory show so much emotion for the outcome of this game. The national team is making progress with its international reputation and within the country, and Major League Soccer is capitalizing on the growth of the sport with the arrivals of Orlando City S.C., New York City F.C., and the future Beckham and Atlanta franchises.
And on Thursday, I’m confident we’ll see the United States progress into the Round of 16. Although the defense begs for improvement, the fluent attack that the U.S. National Team showed against Portugal is another glimpse into the exciting future that Klinsmann envisions for this team in the 2018 World Cup. But right now, this team has enough talent and guile to hang with Germany and join them in the knockout stage next week.
The Hollywood ending was delayed, but until then, all we should do is just believe.