The biggest game in U.S. men's national team history has arrived: bigger that the 1930 World Cup semifinal, bigger than the qualifier against Trinidad and Tobago that secured passage to the 1990 tournament, bigger than the 2-0 victory over Mexico in the 2002 round of sixteen. With the brightest spotlight ever to shine on the sport in this country, the USA takes on Belgium for the chance to play in the 2014 FIFA World Cup quarterfinals.
Already having exceeded expectations for this tournament by surviving the "Group of Death" to advance to the knockout round, the U.S. can only add to its impressive list of achievements in this World Cup with a result against the favored European side. And ready on the bench, just in case his name is called with the game on the line, will sit Chris Wondolowski. "The Man" when it comes to his station on the San Jose Earthquakes, Wondo is just the type of role player that Jurgen Klinsmann has stocked his team with as it prepares for Belgium.
"A lot of people picked them as a dark horse," said Wondolowski from Salvador on the eve of the U.S.'s match. "It is not much of a surprise how talented they are. They've shown great in this World Cup and are a very dangerous team.
"We feel we've put together a game plan that we need to execute precisely; otherwise, it could be a long day. But I feel that if we do execute our game plan that we can get a result as planned."
Wondolowski made one appearance over the course of the three-game group stage - a late cameo against Portugal in what eventually was a 2-2 draw - and, despite the absence of the injured Jozy Altidore, has bided his time on the bench, ready for the chance to shine for the U.S. But Wondo knows his role, and he believes in the message delivered by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann that team can succeed if everyone does his part.
"It's been a great experience," said Wondolowski. "Just to be a part of this team is truly special. We have something special in this locker room, so when you have that, you can achieve great things. We've been working very hard, and it really, truly is a joy to be with these guys day in and day out, and I've been enjoying it.
"To step on the field in a World Cup has been a dream come true. There's still a lot of work ahead, but I think I can provide if something happens and we need a goal or something late. We haven't had to deal with that yet, so I think that is why I haven't gotten into many games, which is fine for me. As long as we are winning, I am fine with that."
Altidore has been ruled eligible for the match against Belgium, and Klinsmann has hinted that the physical target forward will get the start on Tuesday. Still, Wondolowski will be ready in case Altidore's hamstring injury flares up again. Or even as a late sub, as against Portugal, when the team needs a lift. One thing is certain, in a World Cup where seemingly anything is possible, and dramatic moments have occurred from opening to final whistle, an undivided focus has been vital to those teams that have found success.
"We have been paying close attention," said Wondolowski, even as he was watching Algeria take Germany to extra time in Monday's marquee match. "It hasn't necessarily been those teams that are physically strong, but those that have been mentally strong throughout this tournament. The ones that keep driving through the ninetieth minute, the ones that have done the preparation. We feel we are very well prepared. The coaching staff and the staff in general across the line have prepared as well as anyone in this World Cup."
Prepared on the field, the U.S. effort will be bolstered by the stunning display of support from their traveling fans in the stands. Through the three games of the group stage, many thousands of red, white, and blue clad supporters braved the difficult travel and weather conditions in Brazil to represent the U.S. at the World Cup. Wondolowski, who has commented in the past at the level of support growing in MLS, has been almost stunned by that on display during this tournament.
"It's huge," exclaimed Wondolowski. We've had absolutely amazing support. If you could hear the crowd; it gives me chills every time. They've been absolutely amazing and so loud and so together; it really is a driving force that really keeps us pushing and something that really keeps us together and something that hasn't been there in prior World Cups from what I hear. I hear that most they've gotten was maybe five to six thousand, and we've had close to twenty thousand coming to the games. It really keeps us going through the hard times."
Those hard times are over, and now the USA plays with house money in Brazil. With Germany's late win against Algeria, only ten teams still have their dreams intact of holding aloft the World Cup trophy at the Maracana on July 13, and the U.S. men's national team is one of them. Most of the nations that have advanced to the quarterfinals were favored to do so, as Belgium will be against the U.S., but that doesn't mean the result is preordained.
"It's very important to make the knockout stage because once you make it here, anything can happen," said Wondolowski. "It's one game, and you have to go out there for ninety minutes, especially in this heat and humidity, it can wear down people, but we feel that we are very mentally and physically strong right now and we just have to go out and execute our plans.
"We played really well against Portugal and had a little bit of a lapse over the final 30 seconds, and I think we shored that up and have concentrated on not letting that happen again. Besides that, we have had a pretty good run with the way that we've played, and we're going to take that to Belgium."
Above all, the task is simple: prevail on the day and move on to Saturday's quarterfinal round. No more strategizing on desired results and scoreboard watching the other matches. The knockout round is just that: win and move on; lose and go home.
"The slate has been wiped clean," said Wondolowski. "Going into that game [against Germany], there were a lot of scenarios that even if we did not get a win we could still advance. We know going against Belgium, there is no over outcome that can happen, we have to win. No matter whether it takes 90 minutes, 120, or even penalties, we have to win. That is all we are concentrating on."