The United States: bigger, badder, smarter, tougher. That's how we're trained to think.
Now, is the idea that we're the most powerful country in the world true? Most of the time, no — but in the world of sports, we are.
We win all the Olympic medals, we call the professional teams that win in our country "world champions" and we rule at the sports that matter to us.
Soccer, however, does not matter to us. That was never more clear than it was on Wednesday night, as Landon Donovan and his fellow teammates triumphantly took the stage at the ESPYs to accept their award for "Best Moment." Of the entire year. In every single sport.
Are you serious?
The goal being celebrated was one that lifted the little underdog U.S. team over mighty world power Algeria. Though it was just a goal in a silly little game in South Africa, it meant so much more. It came to represent the hopes and dreams of a nation — a nation that is the third-largest in the world in terms of size and third-largest in terms of population. Somehow, the men from the U.S. went up against Algeria (35th in population) and walked off the pitch with an absolutely dominating, absolutely scintillating 1-0 victory.
Do you believe in miracles? Yes, indeed.
The only miracle here, though, is that in football, baseball, basketball, hockey, MMA, boxing, wrestling, softball, kickball and dodgeball, there are no moral victories; there is only winning and losing. Champions are celebrated, losers try to figure out a way to win next year.
Not in soccer. In the sport of soccer, you can make it out of the first round with one win and two ties before losing to mighty Ghana (81st in the world in size, 48th in population) and fly home, where you'll be celebrated like you're a champion of the world.
What's that, Phil Mickelson? You won the Masters then hugged your wife (who had been battling breast cancer) and made just about every American cry while watching? You call that a moment?
Hmm … Joanie Rochette. What have you done? Oh, right, you skated in the Olympics just two days after your mother died, and you went ahead and won the bronze medal. Ho-hum. Call me when you overcome some obstacles.
And don't even get me started on the New Orleans Saints. Aside from having two legitimate good guys (Drew Brees, Sean Payton) at the helm of your Super Bowl run, and aside from your ability to lift an entire region that's had little to cheer about in the past five years, and aside from the fact that you won the NFC Championship in overtime (beating Brett Favre in the process) before knocking off Peyton Manning and the Colts, there's just one word to describe what you did last year: booooorrrrrinnnggg.
No, you see, Landon Donovan scored a goal in a soccer match — a goal that gave the United States its first and only lead of the entire tournament. And he did it under the very challenging circumstances of having a rebound bounce directly to his foot and with an empty net staring him in the face. It was one of the great moments in the history of anything.
Sarcasm aside, it's being treated as such. "The shot felt around the world" is how it's described in one YouTube video, because obviously the entire world was emotionally affected by a U.S. goal that moved the team out of group play. Soccer fans, most of whom couldn't name the starting 11 for the U.S., posted video reactions to the goal from all around the country. There aren't as many videos of the reaction to the Ghana game, though.
The goal has even been called the "savior of soccer in the United States." How about we actually win something before start talking about saviors.
"Real quick," Donovan said when he accepted the award with his teammates, "the comment I've received more than any other from everyone is, 'Thank you for inspiring us and inspiring our country.' I believe it takes two to tango, and we want to say on behalf of us, thank you for allowing us to inspire you guys. You guys put everything else to a side and let us inspire you, so thank you so much."
The sad part of what Donovan said is that it's probably true.
In all honesty, Donovan's goal was cool. It was an infinitely exciting moment that came at the end of a very exciting World Cup match. But the facts remain: it was the first round, it was against Algeria (a team given 150-to-1 odds to win the tournament, as compared to America's 66-to-1 odds) and it came just a few days before the U.S. was eliminated from the tournament.
Lost in the celebration of this moment is the fact that the Americans didn't win anything. They didn't even come close. They weren't among the top eight countries in the world. They were — in the strictest definition of the word — losers. They lost.
It's not a new trend for American soccer, either. In the 2009 Confederations Cup, millions of Americans (after asking, "What is the Confederations Cup?") lauded the U.S. for its effort and how close it came to a championship. The U.S. lost 3-1 to Italy and lost 3-0 to Brazil but beat Egypt 3-0 to advance out of the first round. They then upset Spain, which was a major accomplishment, but lost in the finals to Brazil by a 3-2 score. At least then, some praise was warranted — they made it to the finals and lost to Brazil. But a last-minute win over Algeria? Let's calm down.
Celebrating Donovan's goal would be like giving Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui awards for their brilliant performances in Games 1-3 of the 2004 ALCS. It'd be like calling the 2007 Patriots the greatest team of all time, even though they lost the only game that mattered. It would be like inducting Greg Oden and Ryan Leaf into their respective sports' Halls of Fame for their brilliant college careers and their impressive draft positions.
It would be, in a word, wrong.
Yet there we were Wednesday night, clapping our hands for a goal that really didn't matter. We are America — land of the free, home of the brave … except when it comes to soccer. Then, we just want to give everyone a trophy.
It's really no wonder why we'll never win.