As the United States falls to Belgium 2-1, there is disappointment. The American flag is everywhere. It is on the plates laid out for cookies and Chex mix, on shirts, and a on a pole to be waved back and forth in the event of a U.S. goal. It is sported on a pair of Rex Kwon Do pants. No one wants a round house kick to the face from someone wearing those bad boys.
Tim Howard is turning in one of the greatest performances in recorded World Cup history. In the 66th minute, Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium keeper grabs a cross out of mid-air in between two American attackers.
When Ally Henderson and Kaelin Hoch can take their hands off their heads and breathe again, they both agree this game features two of the best keepers in the world, top five at least. Hoch and Henderson would know.
They are only about a month removed from winning the first ever girls state soccer title for the western part of the state with a 2-1 Wichita Trinity win over Topeka Hayden. Hoch shutout the Wildcats in the regular season and held them to a single goal in the state championship between the pipes as the Knights keeper. Henderson tallied the state championship winning goal off a cross from Shiloh Miller.
“I think what (Howard) did best today, that he hadn’t on the other days, was that he stayed on his line,” said Hoch. “The defense did a really good job at the beginning of the game, helping him out with the back post, but he pulled it out for them for the rest of the game. I don’t think anything is on him.”
Although the U.S. came up short, the group gathered to watch is a collection of winners. From Trinity’s state championship girls team, Grace Linton, Hannah Hancock, Kaylee Schrag, and Hoch have gathered at Henderson’s house to cheer for America under the shade around an outdoor TV. They are joined by members of the wildly successful Trinity men’s team Emery May, Dylan Warner, and Quentin Manzi.
This is a close support group. They belong to different teams, one playing in the fall, and the other in the spring. But they all wear the same jersey, and use the word, “we,” when talking about the opposite sex's team.
For the girls to pull down a state title for the first time in school history, after two years of heartbreak at the hands of Hayden, the difference was clear.
“The great thing about our team is, the defense isn’t the best, the midfield isn’t the best, the offense isn’t the best,” said Linton. “We are all one team and we are all good. So we can all rely on each other. Everyone played for each other.”
In the 71st minute, Howard makes a sprawling save to keep the game scoreless. Time is winding down in regulation. A goal at this point will not be golden, but it is starting to feel like it.
“(Howard) has saved their butts like five times already,” Hoch exclaims.
Shortly after, Howard makes another incredible save to bail the U.S. out. It is getting ridiculous. In your head you know that it is possible to beat the U.S. keeper, but the heart starts to wonder just how possible. This is starting to feel like something preordained; something an ancient fate had already drawn up. At this rate, what is unfolding is beyond all comprehension.
“I don’t understand that,” Henderson gives voice to the collective bewilderment. “They should have like four goals in this half.”
About four minutes later, it’s Howard again. The heart has now convinced the head. This man is not human. There will be no goals against. Riding a unicorn into battle against an army of sasquatches is possible. Beating Howard isn’t.
Until what seemed like a perfectly rational thought at the time was shattered by a Belgium goal in extra time. Of course this isn’t preordained, and of course Howard is mortal. The air has come out of the watch party.
“Howard can’t save the day every time,” says Henderson as she slinks into her chair.
She adds her displeasure with the defense leaving Howard out to dry.
When Belgium scores its second goal, it is clear how this game will end. The talk turns to who to root for now. Linton pumps her fists in the air and declares her love of the Netherlands. Henderson starts to clean up. The U.S. loss combines with the normal realization the party is over and now only the mess remains.
And then Julian Green uses his first touch of the game to put the U.S. on the board, and cut the lead in half at 2-1. In an instant, the party is back on. Trinity soccer has its arms around itself, cheering with wide eyes.
Someone wonders aloud if Howard is married.
The U.S. makes a furious push to the finish, but can’t come up with the equalizer to force penalty kicks. It is like having your heart ripped out twice. From thinking it is destiny, to turning out the lights, back to knowing they will win, to another crash back to reality.
The Trinity girls have never played in a World Cup, but they know about being beat late on a big stage.
“You don’t (get over it) at first,” said Hoch. “But, I think you look at the players around you and, I think when you appreciate them, you appreciate how far you’ve come. And then you hold on to that. You hold on to how it feels to lose. And even though sometimes it doesn’t work out, it did for us this year. I think holding on to that for so long, just knowing that we could have been so close, and that it was our time to capitalize, I think you kind of just have to optimize on that and look at the best in everything.”