The Paradox of Expectations

One of the stellar things about this World Cup is the way in which everyone appears vulnerable. Other than France and Colombia, no team has been able to string together multiple impressive performances. The Dutch have four wins; three of those came from behind. Argentina relied heavily on Messi magic to bring them nine points from an easy group. Even hosts Brazil have struggled to reach the quarterfinals. Belgium, it could be argued, haven’t yet impressed at all. It took an hour for the Red Devils to wake up against Algeria, longer against Russia. When they scored against a lackluster South Korea side, it was only after going down to 10 men.

The point, of course, is that the USMNT has a chance today. Belgium are the favorites on paper, but they’ve given the U.S. no reason to fear them. A 4-2 friendly last summer in Cleveland now feels worlds away.

It is weird being a fan in the build-up to a match like this. The U.S., in escaping the group of death, has already made a splash and exceeded expectations. They enter today’s game as underdogs, with nothing to lose: it would take a major defeat, by three or four goals, to sour fans on their performance in Brazil. It would not necessarily be a disappointment if the U.S. lost to Belgium, who were picked as dark horses leading up to this World Cup. Losing to Ghana in 2010 was a disappointment; here the Yanks are clear underdogs.

But that safety net is accompanied by possibilities. There is everything to gain: if they win today, they’d have advanced as far as any USMNT in the modern era. A Saturday quarterfinal, against either Argentina or Switzerland, would almost undoubtedly break the viewership records set just last week by their match against Portugal. The USMNT can do something big today. But where there are possibilities, there is an element of danger. Falling to a beatable Belgium would not be a disappointment, but it would feel like yet another missed opportunity. I had no right to expect the quarterfinals from this USMNT, and yet…

In short, the team with low expectations now has pressure on their shoulders, and the favorites have been disappointing. I don’t know what will happen today, but I also don’t feel the anxiety I felt when the same was true on Thursday.

All of this is fairly contradictory, and more confusing than it needs to be. Let’s kick some Belgian ass, and worry about the consequences later. Let’s do this.

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