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

In a perfect world, this is how the US made the World Cup final

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.