At 11 a.m., it was just another day at Freedom Plaza: Heat-slowed tourists wandered across the square. If it weren’t for the police and TV trucks, you might not know that in a few hours, this place would be crawling with chanting, screaming fans of the U.S. men’s national team.
Gerri Carrillo, smoking a cigarette was having none of this afternoon. At 11:30 she already thought it was way too hot. “In the heat of the day? Look at it now, it’s already too hot. With all these people, it’s going to be awful out here,” Carillo, 62, who lives in Falls Church said. She’s a soccer fan, and her daughter and granddaughter play soccer. But that didn’t mean Freedom Plaza was on the table. “I’m not crazy,” she said.
Carrillo wasn’t the only fan looking to stay away from the sweltering downtown scene. At Penn Social, a small contingent of U.S.A fans were decked out in jerseys. One woman had just come back from Brazil. “It was a single woman’s dream come true down there.”
She was avoiding the plaza not just due to heat, but figured the crowd might be a little bush league. Chairs and blankets? Come on, guys. It’s a watch party not Screen on the Green.
“It would be nice to have refreshments other than water,” said Melanie Casner, 31, sporting a stars and stripes bandana and a U.S. jersey. She cut out of work at the Army Corps of Engineers to catch the match. A former college player at Western Illinois, she still doesn’t ever want to stop playing.
“I’m glad the city is doing it and I’m happy the mayor partnered with D.C. United. I think it’s a really positive move and a move in the right direction,” she said.
By 3 p.m., the “I believe” chants had already started at Laughing Man Tavern, headquarters of the D.C. chapter of the American Outlaws supporters group. It was sweatier in there than it was outside.
People booed everything Belgian, including a shot of U.S. fans watching the game in Ghent, Belgium. For the first time, I realized that the U-S-A chant isn’t so bad without the accompanying fist pump, honestly. By 3:45, they’d reached capacity and still had a line down the block.
Minutes before kickoff at Freedom Plaza, it was full, but not unbearable. The setup was way better than of Dupont Circle’s for previous games: Larger screens and better sound. The breezes were few and far between, but well appreciated.
After a tense half, it was time to go.
In the second half, many people sought respite at the National Portrait Gallery. Inside the courtyard, under the fractured sunlight, there was a remarkably more comfortable environment. But when striker Chris Wondolowski missed a sitter late in regulation, everyone froze. It took me 5 minutes to catch my breath.
I also learned something: You know when the home team gives up a goal because the scream you hear down the hall from the bathroom line is a short one, not a long one.
In the first half of extra time, yet another “I believe” chant got started. It was short lived. When Belgian Romely Lukaku roofed a shot past U.S. goalie Tim Howard to presumably put it away, a half dozen Belgians jumped up and waved their flags. The interns and happy hour fans filed out of the gallery.
People said their goodbyes and threw away their beers. Then, the Smithsonian game feed went out. And you found yourself wondering, what does Landon Donovan, the man famously left off this squad, think of this potential result?
“Just give a second, we are resetting our stream. Thank you for your patience. We still believe,” the guy on the microphone said. The crowd cheered, sheepishly.
But by that point, we all knew that was not true. Nobody believed. We weren’t even technically watching.
Then the feed came back. You only heard one name. JULIAN GREEN. Klinsmann was pumping his fists.
Did that actually happen? The much maligned kid whom Klinsmann brought along scored on his first touch of the game? Not possible. The game was now somewhat in reach, even if improbable.
The feed went out again. The crowd groaned loudly. “We’ll score again!” a guy said. “It’s the only time we do,” another replied.
Predictably, yet another “I believe” chant begins.
“Sometimes at this World Cup, you feel the script has been penned by Stephen Spielberg,” ESPN announcer Ian Darke said. Then, a ball skiped off the post for the U.S. The whistle blows and the crowd no longer believed.
“Belgium 2,” Darke started to say.
And for the first time that day, I was actually glad the feed cut out, never to return.