NATAL, Brazil — United States soccer fans went next-level here on Sunday night. Chanting, gyrating and, yes, guzzling a few thousand cans of Budweiser, more than 3,000 of them crammed into an old car dealership that had been transformed into a red, white and blue revival meeting with one thing on everyone’s mind: Beat Ghana in the U.S.’s World Cup opener on Monday night (6 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision).
The U.S. bought more World Cup tickets than any country outside Brazil, and while some of those were for other national teams (hello, Mexico!), a whole bunch of them are cheering for Jurgen Klinsmann’s ambitious Americans. Their World Cup moment has finally arrived, and Sunday’s pre-game party was the first chance for the giant U.S. fan contingent to let loose as one in Brazil.
For anyone who was around when U.S. Soccer wasn’t cool, the scene was glorious. Party-goers arrived to a giant red, white and blue banner reading UMA NACÃO, UMA EQUIPE —ONE NATION, ONE TEAM in Portuguese. They belted out chants (“I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN!”) led from the stage by U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, doubling as a sort of soccer Michael Buffer. They throbbed on the dancefloor to the beat of a Brazilian samba band as the strobe lights flashed and the adrenaline kicked in and the air transformed into raw, live energy.
Here on the northeastern tip of the South American continent, we’re closer to Africa than we are to southern Brazil—and the vibe in this beach town has roots that are more African than Portuguese.
It just so happens that the U.S.’s first two World Cup opponents are African and Portuguese, and as such these 23 American players have been given a golden opportunity from the start of this tournament: A chance to go next-level in the same way the fan support has done.
When U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann took over in 2011, he promised to vault American soccer to new heights, to give a nation of 310 million a purer high of the infectious electric charge that comes with World Cup success. And by drawing Ghana in the opening game he has been handed a gift. If the Americans can beat the bogeyman team that has eliminated them from the past two World Cups, then Klinsmann will have tangible evidence of real progress after the heartache that Ghana has fed to the U.S. in Nuremberg and Rustenburg over the past eight years.
On Sunday, Klinsmann said the U.S. is treating this game with the importance of a World Cup final. A win would set up the Americans beautifully to advance from the World Cup’s hardest group. A loss would be devastating, while a draw would be acceptable in a tournament where every point counts.
Nine inches of rain have fallen in Natal over the past four days, more than anyone can remember here in the City of the Sun. Mudslides have forced residents out of their homes. But Klinsmann said the deluge didn’t affect his team’s preparations, adding he isn’t worried about rain or thunder or even snow. (That was a nice touch, recalling the U.S.’s epic 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Costa Rica in the SnowClásico.)
Monday morning brought pleasant weather and no rain (though more was in the forecast). What’s more, the U.S. players thought the field at Estádio das Dunas was in good condition when they tested it on Sunday, proof that the drainage systems in Brazil’s World Cup stadiums really are up to first-rate global standards.
If you’re a fan, you never forget the names of the random cities where your team achieves World Cup greatness (Jeonju, Pretoria, Suwon, Pasadena) or tumbles into the deepest kind of supporter agony (Nuremberg, Rustenburg, Lyon). Here, in the expectant hours before USA-Ghana III, you look out onto the Atlantic Ocean and the gorgeous beach and wonder: What will Natal be in the memory of the U.S. fan?
Will this be the place where U.S. Soccer goes next-level?