By Matthew E. Milliken
July 3, 2014
I brought my tea cup to the bus station and walked back to my car. There was soccer to be watched!
The World Cup was on! The United States men’s national team had advanced to the Round of 16, the first part of the knockout stage. I drove over to Geer Street and parked by Durham Athletic Park, former home of the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team, and then hiked up the hill to Rigsbee Avenue. Motorco Music Hall sits on the corner of those two roads, and I had a notion that the game was going to be shown on its screen.
This was true, but when I walked into Motorco’s main venue — the eponymous music hall, as it were — it was pretty packed. I decided after a moment that it wasn’t worth trying to fight my way through the crowd to find a seat, and I didn’t relish the prospect of standing throughout the match, which had already begun.
I wandered back outside, thinking of my options. Motorco has a secondary space, so I walked toward it. This smaller venue was pretty crowded, too, but the bay doors were open. (Motorco used to be a car dealership, naturally.) While I’d still have to stand, I’d be able to see the screen without squeezing between a dozen complete strangers. A nice bonus was that the side bar was pretty accessible.
I ordered a drink and a bratwurst and focused on the game, which was scoreless.
The action struck me as resembling the U.S. team’s last match, against Germany. The Belgians were much better than the Yanks at stringing together extended possessions. As a result, the Red Devils were able to launch a number of shots on goal. For the game, Belgium outshot the Americans, 38-14, with the Europeans getting more attempts on goal (27) than total tries for the U.S.
Fortunately, goalkeeper Tim Howard was in top form, absorbing or redirecting a World Cup–record 15 attempts. So the game remained scoreless when halftime came around. I gulped down some water — Motorco had put out some pitchers and plastic cups for the purpose — and tried to cool down.
I also checked my phone several times, because it was closing in on 5 p.m., which meant I’d have to leave for my adult-literacy tutoring session. Part of me was wondering whether my student might cancel the lesson.
But I didn’t receive a call, so I walked back to my car and drove a few blocks over to the Durham County Main Library. It wasn’t a long trip, but I took an unfamiliar route, and noticed a short residential byway with the name of Primitive Street.
At the library, I reserved a study room on the lowest level. Then I ran upstairs to get the tutoring material that’s kept at the reference desk. (On a whim, I also checked out two DVDs.) Then I went back to the lower level to do final prep for my lesson. In a few minutes, I was squared away, thanks to the work I’d done earlier in the day.
Rather than wait in the study room until my student arrived, I wandered out to the plaza in front of the main entrance and surfed the web on my phone. I spent part of my time checking the status of the second half of the U.S.A.–Belgium soccer match on Twitter.
And then, just before our agreed-upon 5:30 p.m. meeting time, my student phoned. I’d sort of been expecting this; it was why I’d stationed myself outside, where my phone gets reception.
L— said that his church had called a meeting about its leadership situation for Tuesday evening. He had to attend, meaning that he’d be unable to come to our lesson. L—’s church’s longtime pastor had died last fall, but the organization has only recently begun the process of naming an interim minister and finding a permanent replacement. We’d talked about the matter in our last two meetings, and it seemed to be something that had L— fairly concerned.
I can’t force a student to attend tutoring, of course, so I said I understood. I asked L— if he wanted to schedule a makeup session for Wednesday, Thursday or Friday evening. (It didn’t occur to me in the moment that Friday would be Independence Day, a national holiday.) L— said he wouldn’t be able to meet those nights because of his side job.
OK, I said. So I’ll see you on Monday at the library, then.
Actually, L— told me, because he had to get ready for his vacation, there were a lot of things he needed to get done at the house, so he wouldn’t be able to attend any more lessons this month.
No more lessons in July? I rephrased what L— had said, just to make sure I’d understood it correctly. He affirmed that I had. OK, I said; why don’t you give me a call in late July or early August when you’re ready to re-start tutoring. I told him to have a great vacation, and we hung up.
L— canceling one lesson was not much of a surprise, even though he hadn’t said anything about a possible conflict when we’d met on Monday. I was a bit put out about him suddenly saying that he wanted to opt out of all lessons in July, because we’d discussed a summer schedule, but, well, that was a decision my student had to make for himself. I told myself that L—’s reasons for canceling probably didn’t have anything to do with me, and I tried to shrug it off.
I went back into the library and put away my papers. Then I brought the tutoring material back to the reference desk and headed back to my car. I would have a chance to watch the end of the U.S.–Belgium game, which was still going on…
Or maybe not. When I got to my car, a man popped out of a pickup truck that was parked nearby and asked if I had jumper cables. I said I did. When I asked the man if he needed a lift, he said he did.
I pulled my cables out of my trunk and brought it over to the man. He admiringly noted that my cables were pretty heavy-duty, and fairly long to boot. (No, I’m not being modest; I’d simply never noticed these things before.) I started up my car and parked it by the powerless truck as the guy hooked up the cables.
When things were set, the guy told me to rev up my car. He got in the cab and turned the key in the ignition. The truck started right up.
The man thanked me. I smiled and said he was welcome. I packed up my cables and drove a short way, back to Rigsbee Avenue. I parked my car, grabbed my water bottle and began strolling north, back toward Motorco.
Neither team had yet to find the back of a net by the time I arrived. I filled my water bottle and found a high stool on which to perch. Time and again, the Americans pushed the ball forward, briefly and fruitlessly, while the Belgians responded with a sustained attack. When “final time” came around — that’s the conclusion of two 45-minute halves along with the nebulous extra minutes of “stoppage time” that help make soccer idiosyncratic and maddening — we still had a scoreless draw.
Had this been an opening-stage game, in the four-team group round robin, the affair would have ended there. But this was the second stage, in which every game must produce a winning squad and a losing squad.
So the match went to extra time: Two 15-minute halves, plus whatever additional stoppage time the referee awarded. And that — that is when the walls started caving in for the Americans.
About two minutes into extra time, Kevin de Bruyne was targeted by a centering pass from teammate Romelu Lukaku on the right side of the U.S. goal. An American defender weakly deflected the ball, but de Bruyne quickly got to it.
The Belgian was seemingly in an inauspicious position: He had his back to the goal, which three white-uniformed defenders between him and the promise land. But de Bruyne efficiently dribbled around in a taut arc to his left.
Then, at seemingly the earliest possible instant, the red-uniformed player rocketed the ball just inside the far goalpost. Howard, who had been in position so many times on the afternoon, splayed his legs, but if he brushed against the ball, the touch was too soft to prevent the score.
Belgium had an early edge, but not a big one. That changed in the match’s 105th minute, in a play that strangely mirrored the previous goal. This time, de Bruyne was moving toward the U.S. goal with the ball from the left flank. He booted the spheroid ahead to a streaking, and perfectly positioned, Lukaku, who banged home a brilliant goal inside the near post.
Now the Americans were down, 2-0, and time was running short. Amazingly, the Yanks scored about two minutes after Lukaku. Michael Bradley lofted the ball forward to Julian Green, who in one fluid motion pivoted on one leg and deflected the ball into the Belgian net. It was an astounding display of athleticism, and it kindled some hope that the U.S. might strike an equalizer and move the match to penalty kicks.
In fact, that’s almost what happened. The U.S. snuck the ball past the Belgian wall on a free kick, giving Clint Dempsey a terrific scoring opportunity. Unfortunately, goalie Thibaut Courtois was just a few feet in front of him, and the ball went right to him. The Americans would get a couple of additional late chances, but they were never able to tie the game.
All in all, it was a brilliant and electrifying match, even if the ending was a disappointment. I felt wrung out when the match concluded, a function of both the emotionally wrenching game that had been contested and of the hot, humid Durham air. I spent a few minutes collecting myself.
There will be other matches played during this World Cup tournament. Some perhaps will be just as exciting as this one. But none will have a team representing the star-spangled banner, and even if I watch, it will be hard to care quite as much as I cared about America’s last two outings.
So long for now, soccer.