John McGrath

John McGrath: Oh, the heartbreak! U.S. stumbles at World Cup

The U.S. national soccer team played its most important game in, well, maybe forever Tuesday afternoon. Other American teams have advanced farther in the World Cup, but none captivated longtime skeptical, first-time viewers the way this team did.

If it’s any consolation — and it never is, in soccer or any other sport — the better team won in extra time, 2-1, and it wasn’t the U.S. It was the team from Belgium, a country the size of Maryland and a population approximate to that of Ohio.

During the 90 minutes of regulation time, Belgium’s “Red Devils” outshot the Americans, 31-6. Statistics, a Stanford economist once put it, are similar to political prisoners: Torture them long enough, they’ll tell you what you want to hear.

But a 31-6 deficit in shot differential suggests the U.S. was more than fortunate to keep score so close for so long. Were it not for the astonishing resilience of 35-year old goalkeeper Tim Howard, Belgium would have secured victory long before the issue was extended into extra time.

And yet two minutes into second-half stoppage time, U.S. striker Chris Wondolowski found himself with a point-blank chance to score a goal that virtually would’ve assured his team’s advancement into the quarterfinals.

Taking a header from teammate Jermaine Jones, Wondolowski had the ball on the toes of his right shoe, maybe 6 feet from the Belgium net.

The goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois, was awkwardly positioned to make a stop — an understandable dilemma, considering how rarely he was challenged.

To his credit, Wondolowski didn’t hesitate. He’ll have the rest of his life to contemplate what happened next. The San Jose Earthquakes star booted the ball over the net, depriving himself of a chance to set off a celebration that could have been quantified on seismic meters from coast to coast.

Soccer rules can be confusing, even for those who are soccer experts — more on that in a moment — but the essence of the sport at the World Cup level is universal: It provides, to borrow from Dan Fogelberg’s song about the Kentucky Derby, a chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.

On a U.S. team coached by the German-born Jurgen Klinsmann, who put together a roster with seven players owning dual citizenship, Wondowlski’s citizenship is strictly American. His mother was born into the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma; his paternal grandfather emigrated from Poland at the age of 7.

Furthermore, Wondolowski, whose Cup experience in Brazil was limited to a couple of minutes of action against Portugal amid the extreme heat and humidity of the Amazon Basin, wasn’t expected to play, much less participate in a sequence that proved pivotal.

Desperate for some fresh legs capable of attacking a Belgian defense that really hadn’t been attacked, Klinsmann substituted Wondolowski for Graham Zusi during the 72nd minute.

Twenty minutes later, Wondolowski was in the right place at the right time, with the ball in front of his foot and the goalkeeper out of place.

Viewers watching at any Tacoma bar and restaurant with a television screen turned to ESPN — all of them, basically — screeched “Ohhhhh!”

Wondolowski’s missed opportunity didn’t lose the game for the U.S. It merely cost the team its best chance to win the game.

But would the goal have counted? ESPN broadcaster Ian Darke noted that linesman had raised a flag indicating the striker was offside on the shot, and if he’s offside, there’s no score.

Replays revealed Wondolowski’s shot was permissible, and the FIFA stat sheet distributed afterward indicated there were no offside violations called on the U.S.

Can you imagine the furor if the goal had been disallowed on a linesman’s faulty judgment call? Potential rioting in the streets is probably an overestimation of the fascination Americans had with the World Cup, which gripped both those who grew up with the game and those who are new to it.

But you never know. Those remote-location shots ESPN cut to every now and then looked like crowds buzzing at a fever pitch.

The fever pitch, in retrospect, was built on a U.S. World Cup record over four games that officially turned out like this: one victory, one tie, two defeats.

Unofficially? The World Cup run was about a beautiful American dream denied when Chris Wondolowski, presented the point-blank chance of a lifetime, kicked the ball away.

You needn’t have played soccer, nor understand its more technical rules, to relate to that.