The USA vs. England World Cup game was still an hour away and the sidewalk plaza outside Fritz & Franz Bierhaus in Coral Gables was jam-packed with soccer fans, most of them in red, white, and blue.
Some went all out and came dressed as U.S. historical icons — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and the Statue of Liberty.
A crowd of nearly 1,500 was expected to stop by the popular soccer gathering spot Friday afternoon; and Austrian owner Harald Neuweg, who happened to be celebrating his birthday, was prepared for his brew pub’s biggest soccer party in quite some time.
Black Friday? Not at Fritz & Franz. It was Red, White and Blue Friday! (with a sprinkling of white-and-red-clad England fans). And what a game the fans got! The inexperienced USA team played with guile and guts and held the vaunted English squad to a scoreless tie.
Neuweg hired 30 extra kitchen and wait staff for the occasion, and they were scurrying around with trays spilling over with beer, Riesen Brezl mit Liptauer (hot pretzels), bratwurst, and wiener schnitzel.
Four years ago, the United States was not invited to the world’s biggest sports party. The Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 Russia World Cup, and U.S. fans were forced to watch the rest of the world compete for the coveted 18-karat gold trophy.
That humiliation weighed on the current U.S. players and served as motivation to reach Qatar. They showed they belonged in the opening game, tying Wales.
But the most highly anticipated game was Friday’s showdown against a stacked English team that rolled over Iran 6-2 in their opener.
The timing could not have been better. A 2 p.m. game the day after Thanksgiving. Most people were off from work and ready to party after eight years with no team in the World Cup. The game was expected to be the most-watched U.S. soccer match in World Cup history.
Once upon a time, American players were in awe of English players. Those days are over. Eight members of the U.S. squad currently play for clubs based in England, including six in the Premier League. Coach Gregg Berhalter also played in England. Gio Reyna and Cameron Carter-Vickers were born in England (Reyna’s father, former U.S. national team star Claudio Reyna played there) and Yunus Musah grew up there.
That familiarity showed as the young U.S. squad did not look intimidated on Friday. Even though Team USA is the second-youngest of the 32 teams in this World Cup, the men in blue played with confidence from the opening whistle
They came out attacking, and took six first-half shots, including four that came oh-so-close.
The first was a header by Haji Wright in the 17th minute. It missed to the right. Then, in the 26th minute, came another close one from Weston McKennie, who dyed a tuft of his hair in red, white and blue. But his shot sailed high. Musah’s shot in the 29th minute was saved high near the crossbar and then Christian Pulisic hit the crossbar with a left-footed blast from the left side of the box.
With each near miss, the Fritz & Franz crowd erupted. Fans groaned, grabbed their heads, slammed the tables. Over and over and over again.
And then, in first-half stoppage time, USA goalkeeper Matt Turner, who plays at Arsenal, earned a huge roar from the fans as he made a tough save on a shot by England’s Mason Mount from outside the box.
The crowd was soccer-savvy, showing just how far this sport has come in this country.
Further proof was the outrage by many fans that Berhalter did not put Reyna into the game against Wales. It was the kind of criticism previously reserved for NFL, NBA and MLB coaches. Now, American soccer fans have strong opinions, too.
When the halftime whistle blew, with the score knotted 0-0, the Fritz & Franz fans chanted “USA! USA! USA!” Then they broke into a spirited rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
Heading into the game, Team USA was a fairly heavy underdog. But this tournament has proven that anything can happen at a World Cup. Japan can beat Germany. Iran can beat Wales. And Saudi Arabia can beat Argentina. We repeat, Saudi Arabia can beat Argentina (still hard to believe that one!).
So, a USA upset of England? A tie? Why not? As the game wore on, the improbable seemed more and more possible.
It remained 0-0 after 50 minutes. Sixty minutes. Seventy minutes. Eighty minutes.
When Turner made two big saves in the 82nd minute and in extra time to keep the English team from finding the back of the net, the fans broke into “USA! USA! USA!”
A win against England, and the U.S. could have advanced to the knockout stage with a win or tie against Iran. A tie vs England and the Americans now need a win over Iran on Tuesday.
“If you’re gonna go down, you go down swinging, you grab ahold of that opportunity and you make us proud!” Fox Sports commentator and former U.S. national team defender Alexi Lalas said before the game. “That is the American way. That’s the American team I want to see.”
That is the American team the world saw Friday. They saw a team that despite its youth and inexperience on the world’s biggest stage, proved that it not only belonged, but it could go toe to toe with one of the world’s most talented teams. It was worth the eight year wait!